Hundreds of years ago, musicians, artists, and performers roamed the Indian countryside, crafting a common, cultural mythology through their performances, stories, and shared art. Eventually, their wanderings were relegated to a stretch of vacant land outside West Delhi, called Kathputli Colony. Since it was settled in the 1950s, the colony has become home to some of the world’s greatest street magicians, puppeteers, performance artists, and acrobats — but all this will end when the land, recently sold to real estate developers, will be bulldozed and cleared for development. “Tomorrow We Disappear” aims to document the unique culture of this “tinsel slum” before it vanishes for good.
Intrigued by the snippets of music and fantastical images in project’s inspiring pitch video, I wrote to filmmakers Jim Goldblum and Adam Weber to see if they’d be willing to share some of their work in advance. Below, a selection of photographs and words from Emmy-award winning photographer Joshua Cogan, who accompanied them on their trip. Check them out! You can become a backer to physical receive prints.
Babban Khan is a masterful flute player and one of the few surviving elders at the Colony. He was a monkey handler before the NGO’s and government started to associate animal handlers with animal cruelty and worked to ban the practice. We would often see Babban literally come out of the woodwork, and just as quickly he would turn around and be gone. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of him, but he always had a playful presence, and more than once he came to pry us out of sticky situations. Here he can been seen at the corner between two alleyways, always keeping an eye on us and the rest of the world.
Naseeb Shah sits inside his small tenement in Kathputli; with his son Rahman behind him, quietly listening to stories. Once considered a master of Indian Street Magic, Naseeb now struggles to find a safe place to perform, as well as “pure” audiences that are not easily distracted. In this photo, I see the heaviness he carries with him about the future, but he was also quick to smile or make jokes belied by a quick wink.
Ishamuddin rises from a performance on a rooftop in the colony. Isham is one of the colony’s most famous performers, and the only magician in the world with the ability to perform the Indian Rope trick (the trick where a limp rope literally rises from a basket to suspend itself some 20 feet in the air). Isham has travelled all over the world performing his trick, from Japan to Europe, and he even played host to Penn & Teller at the Taj Mahal.
Maya is one of the most talented acrobats in the Colony. The youth in her family are trained from a very young age, with the babies having their limbs gently bent and stretched from the time they are born. This is the only way to be prepared for the grueling hours of training that prepares them to perform. I saw Maya pick up needles with her eyelids while bent over backwards at one point, so the balancing of the candle only teases at her true talent. What struck about this moment was the flickering of the candle with the reflection of light from the little pieces of mirror that hung from the doorway behind her. The light seemed ethereal and magical, which is what you feel when your watching her perform.
A street scene in old Kathputli. Kids play on carnival rides that sit in storage in the alley. Kathputli feels like the home of magic and wonder, as a home to performers of all kinds, there is spirit of foolishness and play that infiltrates the reality of living a hard life in the slum. Everywhere you turn someone looks to perform or catch your eye. The big challenge for me was to get natural shots for the camera, so often times I would turn my back for a while until the attention was off me, and then turn quickly for the snap.
A boy at one of the Chai shops right outside Kathputli. I am always fascinated when youth live as adults, working and running businesses. India is a tough grind for many in the lower classes to make a living. This boy ran the shop much of the day, serving up chai with the demeanor of a man who had spent his whole life doing it.
A street scenes in Kathputli. This was literally the first day I was there, sometimes on those days, my eyes are freshest, but also most inhibited. I shot this image as a woman adjusted her sari in the sunlight. When I looked at it back home in the evening, there was something about her body position and the contrast that really made me smile, it almost seemed as if she was bathing in the sun. In India, you get a lot of beautiful shots of saris, but it takes something different to make them stand out to me. For some reason this one did.