The Indian Rope Trick is what first led 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 puppeteer. Their fathers and grandfathers 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 dalmatian 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 Krishan 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 immediately 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.
Krishan 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 Krishan 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 hospital. He’s been a sword swallower ever since.
There is a sense of tradition in India that no westerner could possibly understand. You are juggler, because your father was a juggler and his father before him and so on. It is dharma. Breaking the cycle is extremely rare. On one trip, I passed a house where a father and son were practicing simple illusions. The father bent a trick spoon. Then the son did the same. They made flowers appear out of their shirt sleeves. They worked on pulling a white pigeon out of a hat.
The son was already a working magician, taking jobs at parties and cultural events but he sat there nonetheless as his father watched and commented on his technique. The tricks were very basic but the son just kept repeating them as his father watched. I sat with them for an hour and just watched. If I hadn’t been there, the white foreigner with a large camera, no one would have even noticed. It was just another quiet moment in Kathputli.
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 Rajasthan 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 unhygienic 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 Bollywood numbers without any prompting whatsoever. Simply put, Kathputli was never dull.
Children run, shouting and screaming down the main street in the Kathputli Colony. Located in northwest Delhi, Kathputli is inhabited by approximately 2,000 performing artists, practicing traditional art forms such as marionette puppetry, juggling, magic, acrobatics, dance and music. Many have travelled all over the world showcasing their abilities, but they still choose to remain living in this slum, which is one of the most impoverished in the city.
Rahul, the Fire Eater, practices his art in the Kathputli Colony.
A drummer in the Kathputli Colony plays a traditional Punjabi Bhangra song.
Outside the Kathputli Colony, underneath the New Delhi Metro, a young musician boards a local bus en route to a paid performance.
A young girl walks through the narrow alleyways of the Kathputli Colony.
A girl holds a white pigeon in the Kathputli Colony.
Ravi Bhatt is a Horse-Dancer in the Kathputli Colony.
Many of the women in the Kathputli Colony perform as dancers, singers and acrobats.
A woman in the Kathputli Colony practices the traditional Rajasthani dance of Bhawai which can include dancing on broken pieces of glass while balancing five to seven pots on your head.
A young woman in the Kathputli Colony.
The Tall-Man of the Kathputli Colony.
Krishan the Juggler shows his sword swallowing trick in the Kathputli Colony. He says that he first learned the trick when he was nine years old from his father, also a performer. According to Krishan, his brother held him down while his father forced the sword down his throat. Krishan then spent the next three days in hospital.
Nine year old Tarveena the Magician wears her performance dress on a rooftop overlooking the Kathputli Colony.
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.
Zackary Canepari (b.1979, USA) is an independent photographer and filmmaker specializing in documentary and editorial projects. His career began in 2003 shooting portraiture for American culture magazines such as XLR8R, RIDES and the SF Guardian. Before that he studied photography in Paris at the SPEOS Photographic Institute and later entered the Masters Program at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. From 2007-2009 he lived in New Delhi, India working as a photojournalist in the region. As a photographer, his work has taken him to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mexico, China, Eastern Europe, and Nigeria for a number of clients including The New York Times, The Guardian, Newsweek, TIME Magazine and The Chicago Tribune. In 2009, Zack and filmmaker Drea Cooper created California is a place, a series of short documentaries about California. The series was featured as part of the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontiers section and was nominated for the IDFA DocLab award for Digital Storytelling. As a director, his clients include K-Swiss, RayBans, Chevy, Adidas, Toyota and NPR. He is currently based in Los Angeles.