Aspen Times Weekly: Finding Magic in India
Seated on the cement floor surrounded by laughing children, a booming Rajasthani band and a fire-breathing puppeteer, I wondered briefly how I ended up here. Like many memorable experiences, a movie and a book led me.
I first learned about New Delhi’s so-called “magician’s slum” through the excellent documentary “Tomorrow We Disappear,” which screened at Aspen Filmfest in 2014. The film outlined the ongoing clash between the residents of Kathputli colony, which generations of Indian folk artists have called home, and developers seeking to bulldoze the slum and displace them. I had interviewed the director Jimmy Goldblum at the festival and reached out to him when Natalie and I were heading to India in March. I wanted to learn more about it in person.
Goldblum had sent along contact info for a few of the artists and residents featured the film, but I didn’t have any luck contacting them. Once we were in Delhi, I asked around about it –hotel concierges, tuk-tuk drivers, and just about anybody we met – and had been met with variations of “this place does not exist.”
In Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children,” protagonist Saleem Sinai lives in the magician’s ghetto for a chunk of the novel and it even describes foreign tourists coming there for performances, I would tell them. Maybe basing a travel itinerary on a magical realist novel isn’t the most sensible way to plan, but those passages seemed proof enough to me that we could make it there. Rushdie also describes the slum as transporting magically to avoid police raids … so maybe it had teleported away? Or maybe the efforts to destroy it and displace the magicians detailed in “Tomorrow We Disappear” had succeeded?
By my last day in Delhi, I had just about given up hope.
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As a last ditch effort, I printed out a screenshot of a map of the general area where I believed the colony stood. I showed it to a young man at the front desk of our hotel, who said, “We do not suggest you go to this place.” Natalie and I had befriended a cabdriver, Manish, over the last few days. So I called him, explained what we were in search of and showed him the map. He was dubious, too.
Manish drove us to a cabstand, where he showed the map to a manager and explained that we were looking for puppeteers and magicians.
“This is a very poor place, a very dangerous place,” the manager said.
We shrugged this off. After traveling around northern India without incident, we’d lost any initial trepidation about going off the beaten path.
Manish drove us through the anarchic hive of New Delhi traffic. Eventually, he consulted the map and pulled onto a roadside amid piles of detritus.
A man materialized and knocked on the window. Smoking a beedi, he was dressed in a button-down blue shirt and slacks – more business casual than magician garb. He spoke to Manish in Hindi and Manish turned around and said, “This is the man you are looking for.”
The man vanished, then reappeared with a photo album. He sat with Natalie and I in the back seat and shared pictures of him and a troupe performing puppet shows, doing contortion acts, breathing fire. Through Manish, he told us he had traveled to perform in Washington, D.C. and Paris.
He revealed himself to be Sagar Bhatt, from the clan of great Indian folk performers and artists that settled Kathpuli colony (puppeteer Puran Bhatt is the best-known internationally, and was featured prominently in “Tomorrow We Disappear”).
We asked Bhatt and his neighbors for a performance, and he led us into the slum – we walked through the thin alleys, hopped over open sewers, dodged cow pies and ducked stray power lines amid children at play and women seated on their heels warming naan on cookstoves and washing clothes in buckets. As we went, Bhatt popped his head into homes and hollered down alleys. Men came out to join him. Our ranks grew as neighborhood children emerged and followed us along the broken stone paths dotted with hand-built homes of brick, concrete and plywood – many painted in brilliant colors. It was clearly a poor area, yes, but there was nothing grim about it. This artist’s colony seemed a joyful place.
Eventually, we entered a low-slung one-room building. Inside was a group of children watching cartoons on a flat-screen television. Bhatt rolled out a small rug, placed a blanket on it, and invited Natalie, Manish and I to sit.
The kids made way for a band of musicians and joined us to watch. Two tabla drummers, a harmonium player and a singer sat and immediately began wailing out songs in the up-tempo Rajasthani folk style of cascading vocals and squeezebox. As the music kicked up, Bhatt unzipped duffel bags and began pulling out his ornate puppets. Without formalities or introduction, his show launched into a procession of traditional Indian puppet characters –dangling from Bhatt’s strings, a snakecharmer rose a cobra from the ground, then an equestrian did barrel roles on a horse, a woman performed a ghoomar dance. Bhatt dropped them and threw on a horse costume and performed a joyful dance himself. He then threw that off and pulled three bicycle wheels out of the bag – before we could ask why, he had them spinning on his head, his nose and the big toe of his shoeless foot.
This crash course of the performing arts heritage of India came fast and furious – like a lot of India, it bordered on overwhelming. But taking in Sagar Bhatt and his band of merry men, I was heartened that the colony and its magic were, indeed, still here.
Before what turned out to be the grand finale, Bhatt shooed the children away. An assistant handed him a two-liter bottle of Frooti – a popular Indian mango drink – and a small torch. He lit the torch and put the flame to his tongue, then ran it up and down his arms. Bhatt took a swig out of the bottle, then began breathing a series of fireballs (it was gas, not Frooti, in the bottle). I looked up at the wood-paneled ceiling, and momentarily worried, but just as soon gave myself over to the wonder of it and my gratitude that these magicians hadn’t yet disappeared.
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