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Disappearing Act

A colourful phenomenon that has entertained generations of Indians is slowly dying out.

Words: Farheen Ali Photography: Adeel Halim

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A man feeds an elephant outside the circus tent

     The word ‘circus’ conjures images of fun and gaiety, and brings me back to my childhood where days were full of games and laughter and the only deadline was bedtime. For over 100 years, going to a circus was typically an annual event in many Indian households. I remember rushing with other children to catch a show before a travelling circus moved on to the next town. Today, the number of active travelling circuses in India is dwindling. Falling collections, strict regulations and lack of suitable talent are making it difficult for this industry to compete with other forms of entertainment.

The Early Indian Circus

India’s ancient history has several references to the tradition of travelling entertainers and artistes. The first official Indian circus came into existence around 1880. In those days, circus shows consisted primarily of equestrian performances. This trend changed soon after and acrobatic performances took precedence, especially in international circuses. Today, less than 20 big circuses are members of the Indian Circus Federation, while a large number of small circuses operate unregistered.

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Men wait for the circus gates to open to watch the next show.

     An Indian travelling circus typically has two to three performances a day, each lasting about two hours. Ticket prices vary from INR 50 to INR 500, allowing people of all social strata to enjoy the shows. The more expensive tickets offer access to front rows seats for a close up view, while visitors holding the cheaper tickets often sit on wooden planks placed at the periphery of the circus tent.

     There is also often a canteen tent where snacks and refreshments are available. Normally, circus employees walk around selling popcorn, ice creams, colas and even hand-fans to generate extra income. A striking feature of an Indian circus is the absence of fancy props. With a minimalistic use of technology, most performances are a result of years of practice and human perseverance. One often notices the same entertainers coming into the arena and performing multiple acts. Trapeze artists, fire dancers, rope walkers, mono-cyclists and animal show experts often take on several roles.

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Women on mono-wheel cycles take centre stage while another group stands by to join in the act.

     There are also some feats that are unique to particular performing artistes; the Fish Man, for example, drinks a jug of water, swallows a live fish, and then sprays out all the water including the fish! Circus owners try very hard to source such uniquetalent to become a part of their circus act, and create added value. Most of the artistes are not well educated, but they have immense talent. It is the task of the circus master to recognise and nurture their gifts.

“The performers put on their best show during the few minutes of their appearance, but once done, they retire to their tents where they wait to repeat the same tedious routine.”

Behind The Scenes

Going backstage, one is struck by the realisation that being part of a circus is not as carefree as the performers portray it to be.

     It’s a hard life, travelling away from family, and with the omnipresent sword of death hanging over an acrobat’s head if his or her attention lapses even for a second. The performers put on their best show during the few minutes of their appearance, but once done, they retire to their tents where they wait to repeat the same tedious routine.

     Typically, circus acrobats and employees come from poor families. It is also not uncommon for parents to sell their young to a circus. This way, the children grow up learning the ropes from a very young age. As adults, these performers continue to live the circus life as they do not experience anything else and are uncomfortable venturing out into the world.

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A Tanzanian stretching inside his tent as he gets ready for his act.

     I caught up with 65-year-old Ramprasad Pant who spent 28 years of his life workingin a circus. He had run away from his home in Nepal as a boy of 11 and after a few misadventures, found himself penniless in Mumbai. Someone suggested a circus that was camped at Dadar, and that’s how his circus life began.

     As a young boy, he did daily chores and odd jobs. Slowly, he started to train for the performances and soon he was doing 12 acts – the trapeze, skating, bike riding, monocycle and balancing among others. The circus camped in different cities for a couple of months, resulting in most of the artistes speaking a variety of languages, picking up a little from the locals each time the circus stopped in a new place.

     Sometimes, Bollywood superstars would come for a show and that would be the highlight of their stay. Ramprasad was married in the circus too; the circus owner arranged the match with one of the female artistes. He told me multiple times that the glamour is for the viewers only and the actual life of a circus artiste is very hard. However, leaving the circus in his youth was impossible. Having spent most of his life there, the thought of navigating the world outside was too overwhelming.

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Acrobats from Africa stand atop each other during their performance.

The Great Decline

Sadly, the fate of the Indian circus seems rather dismal for various reasons. Circuses are typically family-owned businesses that are rarely professionally managed. This is reflected in all aspects of the functioning of the circus. Lack of safety standards result in frequent accidents or deaths. Most circus artistes have seen their share of tragedies with a friend or co-worker having a mishap during training or at a practice session.

     Circus owners also face another major challenge for survival: Finding and retaining talent. In recent years, circuses have come under fire for using children in their acts; In 2011, the Supreme Court of India banned circus owners from employing children under the age of 14. It is a catch-22 situation. With dwindling collections, circus owners find it more economical to have children performers. Children are also less fearful and more agile, and when trained from a young age, grow up to be better performers. With this ban, it is even more difficult for circus owners to find good and affordable talent.

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A clown with a horse just before entering the ring.

     The Indian circus has also had its share of bad publicity for using questionable methods of training young artistes. Due to these reasons, most people are apprehensive about working in a circus or allowing their children to work in one. Unfortunately, the artistes are rarely seen as serious entertainers, further adding to its decline and almost inevitable death.

     Then, there’s also the decline in entertainment value. Up until 15 years ago, crowd pullers included wild animals such as lions, tigers, panthers and bears. Due to animal rights issues, the use of these animals has been completely banned since 1999. In smaller towns of India that don’t have zoos, the circus was the only opportunity for people to see these creatures. This has caused a huge blow to the Indian circus.

     The circus industry has also been struggling to adapt to the change in viewers’ tastes over the last few decades. Many of the performances are the same as a decade ago, and the circus industry has been unable to revamp its acts. With 3D movies being the entertainment norm, human feats of ingenuity and disciple do little to entertain. Air-conditioned and available 365 days a year, malls and multiplexes are seen as more convenient forms of entertainment.

     In its heydays, a circus would be a star attraction in even a big city, with both politicians and Bollywood stars visiting. Unfortunately, due to high rent, lack of basic facilities and too many regulatory issues, circuses today prefer to bypass the bigger cities, or at most, set up camp in the suburbs. It now caters primarily to lower socio-economic groups.

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Artistes prepare to balance candle lamps during a show

SAVING THE CIRCUS

Undoubtedly, the Indian circus has lost its sheen, but there is hope. International circuses that come to India do make good profits. It is possible for the Indian circuses to tap the same market. However, the road ahead is an uphill one. A shift in mindset and a new approach to aspects including attitude towards employees, recruitment policies, wages, training and the use of modern day technology are required for the tide to turn.

     Without reform, the Indian circus will cease to exist, and this will be a great loss to a nation whose people have the talent and will to perform.

GETTING THERE: AirAsia flies to Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Kochi and Tiruchirappalli from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. Go to www.airasia.com for details.

The First Indian Circus
The first Indian circus appeared in 1880. Its creator was Vishnupant Chatre, a riding master who doubled as a singing teacher. A visit to the Royal Italian Circus, which was touring India at the time inspired Chatre to organize his own circus in which he was the star equestrian, and his wife a trapeze artist and animal trainer. Chatre’s circus went on to travel extensively across India, as well as Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka) and parts of Southeast Asia. By around 1910, acrobatics were taking precedence over equestrian acts in international circuses, and Chatre’s circus lacked in this department. Chatre met a martial arts teacher on the Malabar Coast in India who later went on to open a school for circus acrobats. This school set the stage for Kerala to be known as the cradle of Indian circuses, and for many years, south Indians dominated the Indian circus industry.

Catch A Circus
Check out these websites and contact the numbers listed to find out where these circuses camp next.

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  • hana

    Nice story! i love the circus elephant!!

    • http://www.airasia.com/travel3sixty Travel 3Sixty

      You’ll love it even more if you’re there in India! Thanks for your kind words :)