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Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.

Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
Peru as his base. During that time he has studied ayahuasca the visionary healing vine of the jungle with his friend the curandero Julio Jerena. He has collected artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History botanical specimens for Shaman Pharmaceuticals and herpetological specimens for the FIDIA Research Institute of the University of Rome. His description of the indiginous Matses Indians’ use of the secretions of the phyllomedusa bicolor frog has opened an entire field devoted to the use of amphibian peptides as potential medicines in Western medicine.

Three Stones to Mark a Fire: India's Forgotten Artist

by Peter Gorman
© all rights reserved

First light in Delhi. Already camel carts and sacred cows begin to crowd the streets. Taxis, bicycles, auto rickshaws, and buses fill the city air with the din of their perpetual honking - modern-day roosters announcing the dawn. And, in Shadipur Depot, a sprawling slum just outside Delhi's center, the families of 350 of India's traditional artists wake as well.

Groups of brightly dressed women carrying water jugs on their heads walk down the rutted, serpentine main street of the depot toward the community water pump. Children are everywhere, ragtag and beautiful; groups of men gather around the water pipes, discussing the issues of the day. The air is charged with smoke from morning fires and the smells of breakfast teas and boiling meat

From one of the common alleys that run between the haphazardly placed mud huts of the shantytown, an elderly magician and his son emerge onto the main street, carrying their props; they are headed to the fort in Old Delhi, where they will perform today. Nasir Kahn prods a reluctant dancing bear into a waiting taxi for the ride to the train station, where he hopes to earn his day's wage from the tourists there. Moments later, Giarsa Natt, laden with ropes and old bicycle tires, hurries onto a bus, his beautiful, contortionist daughter Suresh close behind him. Within a few minutes, others join them: musicians and jugglers, puppeteers and folk dancers, flocking toward the crowded highway that runs alongside Shadipur. This is reveille at the Bhule Bisre Kalakar, the Cooperative of Forgotten and Neglected Artists.

Bhule Bisre Kalakar: Cooperative of Forgotten and Neglected Artists

They come from Gujarat and Bihar, Rajasthan and Hiryana - harsh places of northern India, desert and mountain. They have been living the gypsy life for more than two thousand years, moving in family groups from place to place, performing for the rural villagers. Each has only the skills taught them by their parents and their parents before them for generations. In the past, wealthy patrons paid them handsomely for their appearances at weddings and official affairs; villagers provided them shelter and food. Some sang the legends of gods and heroes, some used finely carved puppets to tell the stories of the maharajas; and some could dance the history of the world from the beginning of time. Others charmed snakes or trained animals to dance. They were entertainers in a bleak land, but they brought with them more than entertainment: They brought news from far-flung places, their arts were a repository of the history of a people, they were the connecting forces that bound a vast land.

Support for the traditional arts began to wane at the turn of the century; industrialization allowed patrons and landowners to move to the cities and run their operations from there. The advent of movies, radio, and, later, television began to erode support for the artists from even the villagers. They were no longer as integral part of the country's communications network; worse, their value as entertainers diminished as performance arts ceased to be an important shared community experience.

Faced with this new reality, many of the artists began to move to the cities in search of a new audience. They squatted on vacant lots in temporary shelters and tents, performing on street corners and in parks, trying to adapt to their changing world. Just how much their world was changing became apparent with the passage of the Bombay Prevention of Beggary Act of 1954, which labeled as beggars anyone who "solicits or receives alms in public places under any pretense such as singing, dancing, fortune telling or performing." Though the act was not initially intended to create problems for legitimate traditional artists, in actuality it reduced the status of those artists to that of beggars and set off a twelve-year period of their legal harassment at the hands of authorities - and a battle that lasted more than twenty years to re-establish their status as artists.

Less than two years after the passage of the act, Harji Bhopa, a balladeer, returned to his tent home one day to find his belongings being hastily packed by his young wife, Banarce: A slum clearance crew had ordered her to remove their things within an hour or they would lose them. "After my wife, the only things I cared about were my bhopa and my instruments. My uncle had given them to me and his father had given them to him. We took them and left." His bhopa is an elaborately painted scroll that depicts the stories he sings - the stories of the legendary Rajasthani hero, Pabu Ji. "Pabu Ji stopped the slaughter of sacred cows in India. He brought camels to Rajasthan, in the desert, from Sri Lanka. The whole story of Pabu Ji takes sixty hours of telling. He did many, many wondrous things. To have lost my bhopa would have been awful."

At almost the same time the clearance drive was shifting Harji Bhopa, the Bhatt family of puppeteers was give a similar order to leave the lot that they had moved onto. They barely escaped with their puppets; most of their other possessions were left behind.

"We are artists! Artists!" says Ramu Kana Bhatt now, remembering those days. "We were treated like beggars! We had nowhere to go, my father and brothers and our families. We were moved from place to place whenever there was a new clearance drive. It was happening to all the artists then, but we were separate casts, so we didn't know each other. We had no strength."

The Bhatt family finally moved to a stretch of land in from of a disused railway station called Shadipur Depot in 1966. At that time, Shadipur was a fringe area of Delhi, far from the center of town and the clearance workers. Gradually, the Bhatts were joined by other artists at Shadipur in an uneasy meeting of castes. Veenu Sandal, a writer who specializes in Indian social issues, describes it this way: "One of the first to join the puppeteers was Nasir Kahn, a burly, mustachioed magician. Bhatt and his fellow puppeteers were suspicious when he came and settled close to their tents. Who knew what kind of black magic he would make? They had seen, with their own eyes, Nasir Kahn's young son, Anardin, learning how to fly in the air…. Nasir Kahn also worried. He could charm multitudes, but could he succeed with puppeteers? The stalemate continued until one day Bhatt, unable to suppress his curiosity, offered to each Nasir a song in exchange for the secret of the flying trick."

The ice was broken. Other artists who had been moved around began to hear of this odd community and joined them. Castes mixed among the artists for the first time in a living situation. During the late sixties and early seventies, while the shantytown grew to include more than fifty families, shared experience led to a common understanding of one another's problems. Their acceptance of each other proved to be an important first step toward reversing public opinion about them as low-caste beggars. For the first time since the artists had begun arriving Delhi, people who wanted to book specific acts no longer had to scour the city parks in hopes of contacting particular artists: Shadipur had become a sort of artists' meeting ground. One of those who sought out performers there was a young designer named Rajeev Sethi, a member of a politically and culturally important family, who frequently used the Shaidpur artists as entertainers at trade fairs he helped organize.

"As a child," Sethi remembered, "my mother had often hired traditional artists to perform at our house. I thought they were wonderful. Later, when I was organizing events, I always tried to include them."

Those performances began to catch the attention of the press and a number of important cultural personages, including Kamla Devi Chatopadhya, then chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Academy, a society of cultural and traditional arts. Sethi began bringing her to Shadipur. Not long after her first visits there, she suggested that the artists from a cooperative, which would grant them official status and allow them to apply to the government for land on which to make permanent homes.

"It was never our intention to get involved with the artists that way," says Sethi, whose involvement with the people at Shadipur has lasted more than twenty years, "except that we felt there already existed a communal motion among them which moved us."

Under the guiding hand of Chatopadhya and Sethi, the artists began to organize. Within six months of the initial suggestion, the Bhule Bisre Kalakar Samedi, the Cooperative of Forgotten and Neglected Artists, was formed. Getting it officially recognized, however, proved more difficult than getting organized: The Registrar of Cooperatives in Delhi flatly refused to grant that cooperative status.

"People wanted to know how I could call a class a beggars artists. But they were artists. They were our traditional artists, our heritage," says Sethi.

"The government did not like the name we chose," says Ramu Bhatt, one of the cooperative's organizers. "But it was important to us that when they would be recognizing the word artist. 'Artist.'" Bhatt says the word slowly, with great dignity. He is one of the few members of the Bhule Bisre who can read and write and so has a sense of the greater Indian community and the traditional artist's place within it.

Despite being refused official cooperative status, the artists' spirit were buoyed by the way things were going: The press was in their corner, work was coming in for many of them form various fairs around the country, and many felt that it was only a question of when, not if, the cooperative would be recognized. But the indignities suffered during the slum clearance drives were not yet behind them: In 1977 Shadipur Depot's tents and mud huts were demolished and its residents thrown out onto the streets with their belongings.

Immediate pressure from the media and cultural groups persuaded the government to make a tract of undeveloped land near Delhi's airports available for squatting, and government trucks were brought in to move the artists there. The artists didn't want to move, however, and within one week most of them had returned to take up residence beside a bridge just across the highway from their original Shadipur home, this time unified and prepared to fight for their homes.

There was no need to fight. Shortly thereafter, Rajeev Sethi was asked to organize the India Festival-'78, a national planned to hire two dozen of the Shadipur to perform during the festivities, the Registrar of Cooperatives acquiesced to public sentiment and granted the Bhule Bisre the status they sought. The celebration that followed lasted two days and nights.

"We were very happy! Finally we had won!" says Bhatt, his dark eyes gleaming. "Of course, we thought we would be granted title to this land right away. It was inevitable. We were promised it."

A community is people, not buildings

As he talked, we walked through Shadipur toward the village workshop - built with a grant from the Times of India - where his son Raj Kumar and some of the other community members were rehearsing. It was late afternoon and the street was crowded with performers returning from their rounds of the city. Ram Dass, an animal trainer, had taken out two of his monkeys dressed as man and wife for a tour of the city parks; Kassim, a magician, had performed his levitation trick for a group of Japanese businessmen in Delhi's business district. Some, like Hira Bai, an acrobat, had been hired for the day by a local trade show, where she performed tumbling acts, contortions, and balancing routines with her teenaged daughter and two-year-old son. The crowd, she told Bhatt, had been wild about her son. “He’s beginning to understand about balance," she said. "Three good somersaults today."

"All of the children start young," Bhatt explained. "If they don't, they'll never learn."

Hira Bai smiled and stepped into a narrow alley, where she disappeared in the maze of mud huts. Asked whether she and the other performers could make a reasonable living from their work, Bhatt laughed. "Of course! Even when we were beggars, the people loved us. Our main problem is that few of us think about tomorrow, only today. If we have one good performance, we don't work anymore that day."

Behind the workshop, a squat brick building on the fringe of the slum, Bhatt's son Raj Kumar had set up his puppet stage, a simple black-cloth blind erected on a makeshift wooden frame; his cousins Rajinder and Ashok played accompaniment on drums and harmonium. In front of the stage, several dozen of the children of Shadipur set and watched as Raj's devil puppet danced about, juggling his head in his hands. Around and round, the devil danced his crazy jig as the music whipped him into a frenzy.

Nearby several monkey impersonators from the Sofera caste were making up their arms and legs in a whitish mud to look like fur; further on, Babu Lal Bhatt, Ramu's brother, renowned as the finest puppeteer in all India, played drum while his wife and daughters danced a traditional Rajasthani folk dance. The dancers, dressed in full, brightly colored dresses, their faces covered, carried water jugs atop their heads. They moved in a slow and gentle circle, their movements highly stylized.

"That is the dance of water in the desert. They are the earth mothers returning from a long journey with the liquid of life," Bhatt explained.

Everywhere in the workshop and throughout Shadipur the artists practiced their arts: Brijpal Natt dove through fire hoops; Nirir Kahn's bears danced disco; Ramesh Dholi played his ancient trumpet. Harij Bhatt, though a puppeteer by caste, practiced his fire - ating routine and later broke florescent tubes over his head, releasing gasses that glowed brightly in the dying sun. "It's not traditional," he laughed, "but tourists go crazy for that."

Catering to the peculiar tastes of tourists isn't the only change that the move to the city has brought the traditional artists: Many have become enamored with the pace of Delhi and have given up their traditional roles in favor of more modern life-styles. Some of the older Shadipur residents speak bitterly of having lost sons or daughters to mainstream jobs, driving buses, or working in factories. Others regret that their younger children have never known the gypsy life and long for a world where their place is once again clearly defined.

"You see the younger children?" Bhatt asks. "They go to the cinema and see magazines. They want so many things and wonder what is wrong that we do not have them. Look in our homes. There is nothing, only beds and clothes and our equipment. Some of our children do not understand that in our hearts we are still gypsies. We never want to have more than we can carry. At least not until we finally get this land."

In the twelve years since the Bhule Bisre Kalakar Samedi has been recognized, many of the artists have participated in festivals in New York, Washington, Europe, and Japan. They have brought acclaim to India and themselves. But because of politics, overlapping bureaucracies, and the skyrocketing property value of Shadipur Depot, the promised land has never been awarded.

"I thought the India Festival-'78, would bring them attention," says Sethi, who has worked to acquire land for the cooperative since he first became aware of their plight. "I thought that with the added acceptance of the West, people would be more concerned. I've failed in that. We have bandied those people culture all over the world and we bring them back in sheer hypocrisy and leave them where they are, taking no responsibility for their needs."

Delhi's commissioner of slums, Mangeet Singh, an elegant and well-spoken politician, feels that Sethi oversimplifies the problem.

I was not here when any promise of this land was made, but in the five years I have been here I have learned about these artists and am thinking of ways to help them. About Shadipur Depot, the land they are currently occupying, there are several problems. Firstly, since those artists have been there, there has been extensive encroachment by others on that same land. There are now more than 2,000 families living in that shantytown, and only 350 of those are in the cooperative. Now, supposing I want to give land to those 350 families of artists - in truth, to give them land is not possible, but we provide land for very little money - what should I tell these other encroachers? I cannot show preferential treatment that way. It would create great social stress in the area. Secondly, for the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) the Slum commission, to allot land to squatters, you may have a maximum of forty families per acre of land, and the Bhule Bisre Cooperative has many more than that. So even if I would ignore the problem of social unrest and allot this land, I would have to remove nearly 150 of the artist families before that could be done. Whom do I eliminate? Thirdly, in making land available to squatters, the DDA, by law, must provide sewage, electricity, paving for roads. But that cannot be done when housing is haphazardly built, like at Shadipur. So if I were somehow able to allot that land, I would still have to tear down the existing housing in order to provide those necessary services. And this is not acceptable to the artists.

"Of course, this is only one shantytown and there are 652 such slums in Delhi, representing more than one and a half million people, and there are another million people living in the streets. I need to provide basic services for them as well as our artists - public convenience facilities and water pumps. But for that I need money. How do I get that money? I sell city land. And that land at Shadipur is very valuable property, worth perhaps twenty or thirty million American dollars. If I sell that land, I can put that sum of money to great use for a very large number of people.

"Those are only three of my problems with that land. But I mean to find them a home, somewhere, if not at Shadipur. I am working very hard for a solution to the problem. It is the least we can do for those artists because they have done so much for our culture."

A fire: A hearth: A home

No, I do not read, but I sing!

My hands don't write, but they create magic!

We are a people scattered and forgotten,

Homeless, yet everywhere we find

Three stones to mark a fire.

(Itinerant artist at Shadipur)

Sethi has developed a proposal that would eliminate at least some of those problems. He has, with his own funds, designed a housing complex - to be built on public lands - that would be home for 150 of the Shadipur families. In theory, that project, the Nehru Kala Kunge Housing Society, would alleviate the legal overcrowding at Shadipur, paying the way for the remaining two hundred families to acquire the Depot land. The DDA is behind the idea and prepared to provide acreage out near Delhi's airports for the projects.

Bhatt and many of the other members of the cooperative feel that though Sethi's plan is well intentioned, it would, in the long run, create more problems than it solves. "They say that when 150 families leave, they will allot this land to the rest of us. But when those families move, the rest of the families here will be forgotten. They will sell this land and we will have nothing. No, this is the land we fought for and this is our home and this is where we must be," Bhatt says vehemently.

Sethi's plan has also had the effect of creating the beginning of a rift in the Bhule Bisre as the families, who, like Bhatt, think that those left behind will one day return to find Shadipur bulldozed in yet another slum clearance drive, begin to vie for one of the 150 slots available in the proposed Kala Kunge Society.

"We have lived together and learned to live together and teach each other our arts, and we are sad with the prospect of a separation," says Bhatt.

Singh understands the community feeling at Shadipur but is locked in by the law. "We want to do something for these artists. We will do something. Right now we are building new and better public convenience facilities for them, and we would not do that if our plans called for selling the land in less than two or three years. There might be a way even to get them that land. But I cannot promise that."

"Even if they give us homes, all of us, they cannot give us our community. A community is built by people, not a collection of buildings," Bhatt says sadly. "This is where we must stay." Whether that is possible remains to be decided.

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