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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)

The Ultimate Disappearing Act Of India's Magicians

by Claire O'Neill
Nov 14, 2012

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Claire O'Neill

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.)

"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."

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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