Daily Picture Show

The Ultimate Disappearing Act Of India's Magicians

  • One-Eyed Bhatt is one of the few remaining master puppeteers. Here he readies one of his puppets for performance, unraveling some of the 18 strings that are used to bring the figures to life. One-Eyed Bhatt is the oldest puppeteer remaining in Kathputli. He spent his childhood as an itinerant performer, playing music, puppeteering and telling mythic tales in small villages.
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    One-Eyed Bhatt is one of the few remaining master puppeteers. Here he readies one of his puppets for performance, unraveling some of the 18 strings that are used to bring the figures to life. One-Eyed Bhatt is the oldest puppeteer remaining in Kathputli. He spent his childhood as an itinerant performer, playing music, puppeteering and telling mythic tales in small villages.
    Joshua Cogan
  • Animal training is an old tradition in the Indian circus. Goats, snakes, baboons and bears were all used in performances. The animals were often considered members of their trainers' family, living alongside them and providing a livelihood. With the passage of laws forbidding animal ownership in Delhi, however, it has become increasingly difficult.
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    Animal training is an old tradition in the Indian circus. Goats, snakes, baboons and bears were all used in performances. The animals were often considered members of their trainers' family, living alongside them and providing a livelihood. With the passage of laws forbidding animal ownership in Delhi, however, it has become increasingly difficult.
    Joshua Cogan
  • A balloon vendor in the afternoon light.
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    A balloon vendor in the afternoon light.
    Joshua Cogan
  • A mother warming a fire for the evening meal.
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    A mother warming a fire for the evening meal.
    Joshua Cogan
  • A woman adjusts her sari in the colony's tight alleys.
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    A woman adjusts her sari in the colony's tight alleys.
    Joshua Cogan
  • Stacks of carousel seats sit in Kathputli's alleyways and have become makeshift jungle gyms for the children. Laws have been implemented to limit street performance, and the artists have had to rely on other means to make money.
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    Stacks of carousel seats sit in Kathputli's alleyways and have become makeshift jungle gyms for the children. Laws have been implemented to limit street performance, and the artists have had to rely on other means to make money.
    Joshua Cogan
  • Young puppeteer Kailash performs in the House of Puppets, a nonprofit he created to help teach folk traditions to future generations of performers.
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    Young puppeteer Kailash performs in the House of Puppets, a nonprofit he created to help teach folk traditions to future generations of performers.
    Joshua Cogan
  • A wedding band gathers around the entrance of the groom's house in one of the colony's many celebrations. During the run-up to the event, the streets flood with people; rupees are tossed in the air; and drum processions compete with one another for speed and intensity.
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    A wedding band gathers around the entrance of the groom's house in one of the colony's many celebrations. During the run-up to the event, the streets flood with people; rupees are tossed in the air; and drum processions compete with one another for speed and intensity.
    Joshua Cogan
  • Ishamuddin is the only known performer of the Indian rope trick, a legendary act of illusion in which a rope climbs in the air under its own power and is strong enough to support the weight of a small child scrambling to the top. He has flown around the world to demonstrate this skill, but does not teach magic to his children, seeing no future in it for them.
    Hide caption
    Ishamuddin is the only known performer of the Indian rope trick, a legendary act of illusion in which a rope climbs in the air under its own power and is strong enough to support the weight of a small child scrambling to the top. He has flown around the world to demonstrate this skill, but does not teach magic to his children, seeing no future in it for them.
    Joshua Cogan
  • Young children gather on a spinner as an old man turns the wheel.
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    Young children gather on a spinner as an old man turns the wheel.
    Joshua Cogan
  • Maya Pawas, 16, is an acrobat in Kathputli. Her parents began stretching her limbs when she was only 3 years old. Now she is widely regarded as the most talented acrobat in the colony.
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    Maya Pawas, 16, is an acrobat in Kathputli. Her parents began stretching her limbs when she was only 3 years old. Now she is widely regarded as the most talented acrobat in the colony.
    Joshua Cogan
  • Hussein, the oldest remaining magician in the colony, with one of his two doves.
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    Hussein, the oldest remaining magician in the colony, with one of his two doves.
    Joshua Cogan
  • Children who used to grow up as itinerants now grow up in the slum that is Kathputli. The older kids grow up quickly, trying to find a way to succeed in the new India. For the younger ones, the India that awaits them is very different from the one their parents knew.
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    Children who used to grow up as itinerants now grow up in the slum that is Kathputli. The older kids grow up quickly, trying to find a way to succeed in the new India. For the younger ones, the India that awaits them is very different from the one their parents knew.
    Joshua Cogan

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The filmmakers behind a forthcoming documentary describe New Delhi's Kathputli Colony as a "tinsel slum": For decades, it has been home to a community of traditionally itinerant performers — puppeteers, acrobats, magicians and fire-breathers. Foreigners might call them artists; but in India, says photographer Joshua Cogan, they're still considered to be a lower caste of vagrants.

Cogan is the director of photography for the film Tomorrow We Disappear. The still photos he took during film production will be on display starting today in Washington, D.C., for the city's FotoWeek.

He and his team (Jim Goldblum and Adam Weber) were inspired to pursue the story, Cogan explains, when they read about a resettlement agreement, in which the Kathputli Colony's centrally located land was bought out to build a skyscraper. The film explores what the change might mean for the people who live there — and for their traditions. (For literary buffs, the "magician's ghetto" was fictionalized in Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.)

A fire-breather in the Kathputli Colony, New Delhi, India.

A fire-breather in the Kathputli Colony, New Delhi, India. Joshua Cogan hide caption

itoggle caption Joshua Cogan

"I didn't want to make it like a sob story," Cogan says. "In some ways it's like a dark fairy tale." His images of the Kathputli community aren't overwrought with sentiment; conclusions are left for the viewer to make.

In a way, the project reflects aspects of Cogan's own life. Just this year, his art studio — what he described as one of the only "underground arts communities" in Washington, D.C. — was bought out for condo development. In his words, no matter where you are, "the pressures of trying to make a living as an artist are very difficult."

The story also pivots around an age-old tension between preserving tradition and embracing change.

"You have a couple people that try to take the art forms and move them forward, especially the puppetry," says Cogan. "But the problem is that on the streets, no one has the time to watch the stuff anymore. There's 3-D Bollywood movies."

"The acrobats do amazing feats of human form," says photographer Joshua Cogan, "and they're actually the progenitors of yoga."

"The acrobats do amazing feats of human form," says photographer Joshua Cogan, "and they're actually the progenitors of yoga." Joshua Cogan hide caption

itoggle caption Joshua Cogan

While Cogan focused on a slum in Delhi, the same can be said of many developing urban areas. Perhaps that's just how it goes, though. Do cultures die? Or do they just evolve over time?

"In India they literally have, like, a thousand years of tradition being crushed right now," Cogan says. "It's tough not to get trapped in the nostalgia. It probably serves an important purpose, but it's sort of like a pathology, too.

"The truth is, it's very hard to help somebody."

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