Magic Abounds in a Delhi Slum

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Zackary Canepari

Krishan the Juggler shows his sword-swallowing trick.

You'll find magic in the Kathputli slum, if you know where to look. In one of the unlit concrete huts lining this cramped and chaotic warren of alleys, open sewage and dazed beggars, a boy swallows a sword. In another, a string puppeteer makes his wooden princess do pirouettes that send her dress — hand-stitched by his wife — sailing through the air. In a third home, a ten-year-old girl waves her hands over three flowers and — poof! — a bouquet.

Kathputli is New Delhi's largest performers' colony, home to magicians, dancers, puppeteers, acrobats and drummers whose families migrated here during the 1960s and 1970s from villages across India. An illegal settlement in an impoverished northern pocket of the city, the colony is a thriving paradox. Its denizens invite their audiences into lofty worlds where anything is possible, defying gravity with an infectious joy that rises from the squalor like a rabbit from a hat. Some of its more talented residents have found themselves performing for the likes of Sonia Gandhi, India's most powerful politician, only to return to homes without running water, electricity or sanitation.

The very existence of Kathputli is testament to both the legacy of the caste system, and India's cultural melting pot. People of the same caste historically shared the same job and community, working and living together, raising one another's children, passing on their trade to the next generation. The community into which they were born would determine whether a child would grow up to become a jeweler, a carpenter, a snake charmer, a rag picker, a midwife, a weaver or a cobbler. Although the caste system was outlawed in India's founding constitution 60 years ago, caste still shapes the lives of millions of people who continue to live in close-knit caste communities throughout the country. Such clans are especially common among India's rural poor and urban slum dwellers. Many urban dwellers, like the people of Kathputli, brought their rural traditions with them when they migrated to the cities.

Nor was organizing neighborhoods by occupation confined to the poor. Even a handful of the more prosperous residents of India's modern cities have for years lived in neighborhoods composed on clearly discernible occupational lines — doctors, town planners, academics, journalists, lawyers, government bureaucrats and diplomats all living among their own. Most such neighborhoods have their roots in a decades-old government housing program that sells public land at below-market prices to cooperative societies, many of which are based on their members' occupation.

There is no official population count for Kathputli, but residents estimate there are 2,200 homes, about 70% of which are occupied by a collection of street-performer castes, each defined by their talent. The colony, named for the Hindi word for wooden puppet, began a half century ago with seven tents housing an extended family of puppeteers — gypsies from Rajasthan. Next came the magicians, nomadic Muslims from South India. They were joined, in the 1970s, by acrobats from Mumbai. Today, the children and grandchildren of these pioneers work New Delhi's weddings, birthday parties and the five-star hotel circuit, and many jet-set around the world to perform at international festivals, all expenses paid.

A recent afternoon finds Kathputli's trash-choked alleys shaking with the distant drumming and singing of nine women rehearsing for an upcoming show. Dressed in brightly colored saris, they sit cross-legged in a small room thumping on giant hand drums while their lilting voices croon Rajasthani folk songs. Elsewhere, 16-year-old acrobat Maya Pawar practices balancing a bottle on her forehead, while touching her foot to the back of her head. Scars on her stomach mark the time she was run over by a bus as a little girl, while chasing money thrown into the street by an audience member.

At the other end of the slum, two caged doves flutter their wings in the corner of a concrete room where magician Mohammad Hamid and his father, Sayed Hussein, perform a favorite two-man tricks involving two telekinetic pom-poms. "I have learned all the tricks from my father," says the smiling 18-year-old. He spent years perfecting his favorite, called the Indian basket trick. In that one a boy climbs into a basket, and the magician makes him disappear. And regardless of the changes in the city beyond Kathputli, it is a trick he hopes one day to teach his own son.