These days a group of about half a dozen artistes of Kathputli colony — puppeteers, drummers, dancers – come together, wearing masks, to practise their art inside a small room made of aerocon. The room, its wall covered with black fabric, has a mobile phone on a tripod, microphone, an audio recorder, lights, and a laptop. The artistes are rehearsing for Kathputli Utsav, an online art festival to be hosted in February by the University of Manchester in the UK for the artistes of the colony.
“The two-hour event will have performances, talks and panel discussions on the condition of artistes in India during the pandemic,” says Vijay Maitri, a community leader and a theatre artiste . “The online event will be beamed live from our colony to be seen live on a large screen at the university in the UK.
Artistes here have been using technology to save their art and livelihoods during the pandemic.”
Indeed, hundreds of performing artistes and craftsmen in Kathputli Colony, perhaps the country’s biggest community of performing artistes, have taken to technology in a big way in the past two years of the pandemic, organising online shows, workshops for children and making educational videos using puppets on various subjects, including Covid.
When the pandemic struck, the artistes of the colony who used to perform at weddings, birthday parties, malls and restaurants struggled to make ends meet as shows dried up.
In fact, Covid-19 was a double whammy for 2,800 families of the Kathputli colony, who, for over four years have been living in squalid conditions in a transit camp in Anand Parbat after their colony was demolished for DDA’s first in situ slum rehabilitation project. Displaced and out of work, they struggled to survive. “When the first lockdown happened, the situation was dire; many families here had nothing to eat. A few young artistes, who had some savings, collected money to help, and also approached non-profits across the city, which came forward to donate ration kits,” says Maitri.
As part of the relief efforts, Maitri and his young team of volunteers also organized an online show on Zoom with the objective of getting people to contribute to the fundraising campaign they started on a crowdfunding platform. Over 100 people, says Maitri, watched the event live across the world and some of them contributed to the fund raiser. “That is when we realized that our artists can also do shows online to earn some money, ” says Maitri, an engineer-turned-social activist, who was born and brought in the Kathputli colony, where he came to live and work for the community after quitting his job with a multinational company. “ We started teaching young performers in the colony how to create live events on Zoom, Facebook, and Instagram.”
The team also set up a makeshift studio in one of the rooms of the transit camp, to organise online performances. “We made a list of equipment we needed for live events– speakers, microphones, lights, sounds mixers, cameras, and circulated it among our friends and well-wishers outside the colony on WhatsApp; they responded by donating many of this equipment, and we got going,” Maitri said.
Many artistes have also turned their cramped one-room houses in the transit camp into a stage by using green or black fabric to cover walls and decorating the space with puppets and other handicrafts by local craftsmen.
Vinay Bhatt, 26, a puppeteer, is one such artist. He often goes live on Zoom from his room in the transit camp and has so far done two dozen online shows and puppetry workshops. He says that until the lockdown he knew nothing about online shows, but he was trained by his friends in art circles outside the colony. One of his friends, he says, even gifted him a laptop and he got other equipment such webcam on Dariya Dil Dukaan , a gift economy forum on Facebook. Bhatt, who has studied up to fourth standard, has not only done several live shows but online puppetry workshops for a company providing Art Integrated Learning (AIL) for children and several educational videos using puppets on Covid and other subjects for various government and non-government organisations.
“Online shows are not a replacement for physical shows because the artistes crave for the audience’s applause. In an online show, we perform for cameras, which get boring at times, but at least we are able to sustain ourselves financially and keep our art alive. Otherwise, our art and artistes may soon be forgotten without any kind of shows,” says Vinay Bhatt.
And how much does he get paid for an online show? “ I used to earn about ₹7,000 for performing at a birthday party, but I get almost half the money for a similar online performance,” says Bhatt, who has also set up, Puppet Kala, which he describes as a ‘production house’ to help local artistes do online shows. His most recent online show, he says, was for a birthday party at an army officer’s house in the Delhi cantonment. “ While our income is nowhere close to pre-pandemic levels, but now I am confident that I can use all my experience and knowledge of various digital tools to sustain myself through the worst of times. I think every performing artist must learn technology,” he says.
Agrees Santosh Bhatt, 50, another well-known puppeteer in the colony, who has done several online shows and workshops. He says before the pandemic hardly any artiste had a Paytm account, but now most receive payment for their online performances on online wallets such as Paytm or Google Pay. “ We were trained by young volunteers in using mobile wallets. While we are getting little money through online shows, at least we are getting newer audiences, which might help us revive our dying art,” says Santosh.
Many Kathputli artistes, led by Maitri, are also collaborating with foreign artistes online. In October, for example, a group of drummers in the colony collaborated with artistes from Scotland, Jordan, Zambia, Kenya as part of a project by Tinder Box Collective, a community of young artists and musicians in Scotland. The project called ‘Samta Sessions’ aims to form an international collective of musicians, artists, dancers, puppeteers and community groups, in India, Kenya, Zambia, Scotland, Jordan, Nigeria and Ireland and create new opportunities for them.
“It was a great experience creating music together with artistes from so many countries online. We hope it will also give us an opportunity to do more online and offline shows in these countries,” says Vinod Bhatt, a drummer.
Maitri is now running a three- month fellowship for youngsters of the Kathputli colony in partnership with Pravah, an NGO. Under the fellowship, 10 youngsters are doing projects in mental health, education, digital literacy, among others in the colony.
Rohit Bhatt, 21, is handling a project in digital literacy, helping the artistes in the colony organize online shows. “I go door to door training artistes in the use of the mobile phone for live shows. While youngsters here, though not very educated, are quick to learn, the older artistes find it difficult to use technology. But everyone is keen to adopt technology,” says Rohit. “We have so far trained over 100 artistes in creating online events on Zoom, Facebook and Instagram , and will train many more in the coming months. I firmly believe that technology can really help save our art. The pandemic made them hopeless, but technology is giving artistes a new hope.”