Portraits from Kathputli Nagar

Dec 18, 2011 by

Portraits from Kathputli Nagar

(Text and Photos by: Isaak J. Liptzin )

I arrived in Jaipur intending to stay only for a few days, but I ended up meeting a group of people who lived in the Kathputli colony.

I visited their home, and spoke to them about the school they were trying to open. The more time I spent with them in the colony the more involved I became, and in the end I decided to stay for three weeks documenting life in the slum.

People often think of slum dwellers as completely helpless in their poverty, in a way that I sometimes find condescending. The situation is much more complex than that. That is why I wanted to start out the presentation of my photos from Kathputli Nagar simply by showing the beauty and character of the people who live there, rather than focusing on their distressing living conditions.

I hope this project will continue to evolve, and bring attention to the situation, so that viewers will eventually be interested in helping out by financing the newborn school.

It is believed that the Rajasthani art of Kathputli puppetry originated over a thousand years ago. To this day festivals and weddings across the country are livened by colorful and elaborately clad marionettes playing out the tales of courtly intrigue, passionate romance and wartime valor that make up the traditional mythology of Mughal India.

Members of the Bhat tribal communities have preserved this custom up to modern times, and today the “Kathputli tribe”, while still united by family ties and cultural heritage, is spread out across all of the Indian subcontinent.

The slum colony of Kathputli Nagar in Jaipur is home to roughly 5000 people—magicians, acrobats, snake charmers, dancers, and of course puppeteers. The men are often hired to perform with their handmade marionettes at luxurious hotels and puppetry festivals around the world, yet they return home to a life of scarcity within the confines of the colony.

Paid engagements are irregular, and yet are the sole source of income for performers who must support entire families. The government is reluctant to officially recognize the slum’s presence, and as a result the colony lacks basic hygienic facilities as well as access to safe drinking water and electricity grids. Garbage is simply piled up in a large field just outside the colony, in an area shared with feral pigs that is used alternately as a bathroom and a playground.

In July 2011 I spent three weeks visiting the colony.

A group of local men were in the process of applying for a government permit in hopes of opening a small self-funded school for the colony’s many uneducated children and teenagers. In trying to help out with this process, I was struck by the warm and unaffected way in which I was received, and also by the courage and intelligence of their commitment to seeking out a better way of life for their community.

These portraits depict some of the remarkable people I met in Kathputli Nagar.