Zackary Canepari – Kathputli Colony

“The Indian Rope Trick is what first lead me to the Kathputli Colony. The simple illusion requires a magician to make a rope stand vertically erect without any help. Supposedly a man in the colony could perform it and that alone was enough reason to go for a visit.

The entrance was located directly below the new Delhi metro line and adjacent to a highway flyover. On the street outside, cycle rickshaws, tuktuks and people lined 3 rows deep waiting for the bus to arrive competed for space. There were no signs. A concrete wall covered in barbed wire ran along the exterior. It was just another alleyway in a city of 23 million people.

I didn’t really know very much about the place when I first arrived. The rumor was that some local magicians lived there. Maybe some musicians too. Admittedly, I had done very little research. I never expected to find an entire slum full of performing artists. Everyone I met there was a juggler or a magician or a dancer or puppeeter. There fathers and gradnfathers had taught them and their kids were learning from them. There isn’t a single person in the place that can not play a drum.

When I first arrived, my taxi was surrounded by swarthy men with moustaches and silk shirts aggressively trying to sell me an imported dalmation that looked malnutritioned. My driver said something in Hindi. The only thing I understood was his disapproving look and the word “thief.” It was a fairly intimidating introduction.

That first day I met Kirshan the Juggler. He was holding his baby and smoking hash with his friends on the main thoroughfare. I have no idea why i agreed to visit his house and have chai tea with him. He was probably the 20th person that offered. But his demeanor was innocent and generous so I went with it. I followed him through a maze into the heart of the slum. The extremely narrow alleyways had an open sewer running through the middle which required us to hop from side to side to navigate. His home was just a room. His wife immediatly went outside to make the tea while his daughter dragged a charpoy (rope and wood bed frame) into the room so we’d have something to sit on.

Kirshan is a juggler. And a sword swallower. 50 years earlier, his father moved from the Rajasthani Desert to Delhi in order to make a living as a performing artist. He had also been a juggler and a sword swallower. As was his father before him. The techniques (one way to put it) of sword swallowing had been handed down through the generations. When Kirshan was 7, his father and brother held him down and forced a plastic sword down his throat. He spent the next three days in the hispital. He’s been a sword swallower ever since.

The reasons I kept going back to the colony were obvious. First, it was as colorful a place as any I had seen. Most of the families had originated in Rajashtan and they had managed to bring the hyper colors of that area with them. Blue houses and red shops and yellow saris were a fantastic contrast to Delhi’s smog brown template. Second, it was as filthy a place I had ever seen. After a few years in India I had seen some unhygenic places but Kathputli was nasty. Goat feces and garbage and nasty tobacco juice was everywhere and most people barely noticed as they strolled through it barefoot. Herds of street children ran through the crowds with snot and dirt caked on their faces. It made for an extremely visceral experience. Third, everyone had flair. Everyone was a performer. And they performed all the time. Men had long shiny hair and big moustaches. Gold chains and big hoops earrings dangled and swung when they danced and sang into my camera. Fourth and finally, there was always someone singing, dancing or banging a drum. If you closed your eyes and drowned out the white noise, a song would always emerge. Women danced behind closed doors. Men would stroll by in costume with a tabla hanging over their shoulder. Children would reenact bollywoods numbers without any prompting whatsoever. Simply put, Kathputli was never dull.

I met and worked with a lot of people in Kathputli but I never did see the Indian Rope Trick. One guy said he could perform it but when he said it he was drinking whiskey and he said it would cost me about $10,000 to see it. Every other time I asked people looked at me like I had said something in Arabic. I guess that was a myth. But the City of Illusions is not.”