Circuses were often pitched at the Mananchira Maidan in colonial Calicut, sending its European inhabitants into a tizzy

The circus is in town. Camped at the beach, it serenades the waves and a thinning audience. But over 100 years ago, circuses pitched at the Mananchira Maidan in then Calicut were the talking point. They spurred angry letters and petitions from the European residents here who wanted them out of their sophisticated neighbourhood. It was an eyesore and a health hazard, and its practitioners were “undesirable” characters, they said. A dig into the archives from 1909-10 reveals a flurry of administrative activity centred around the circus, involving the Collector, the Municipal Council and even the Revenue Board in Madras.

Popular point

The Mananchira Maidan was the most popular space to pitch circus tents in Calicut of yore. It was near the bank, the hospital, the BGM Weaving Establishment and the Mananchira tank. A stone’s throw away was the then Municipal Hospital and the presence of the circus posed serious health hazards to patients there, wrote the district medical and sanitary officer to the Collector.

The medical officer, Captain R.D. Willcocks, writes in his letter in 1910, “The tent of the ponies is just opposite the septic wards.” He adds the dangers of the bacteria flying about the place cannot be ignored. He warns that the neighbouring Mananchira tank could be contaminated by the presence of circus animals. He requests the Collector “not to allow such performers to occupy the site in future.”

Circuses anchored here were a long-standing concern for the Europeans and a 1909 petition from F. Volz, manager of the Basel Mission Weaving Establishment, to the Collector and District Magistrate is testimony. “No circus or other similar group should be granted permission to play on the maidan later than 10 or 11 p.m.,” he writes. “The maidan is in the midst of the town surrounded by several European houses, the occupants of which are greatly disturbed if permission is granted to play longer.”

With each passing month, complaints against circuses appear to have gathered might. Circuses were just not a nuisance or a health issue, but also ate into the only cricket ground in Calicut. A petition from K. Langby sent directly to the Board of Revenue, Madras, in February 1910 took up the cause of the “whole European community, all the cricketers.” As a player and also a member of the inter school sports committee, he writes the Mananchira Maidan is indispensible to cricket. “I have spent more than Rs 3.50 out of my own pocket in keeping the maidan in suitable condition for cricket,” he writes.

Circuses, he argues, ravage the ground and destroy the pitch. He also puts in a word for the tank, the principal source of drinking water, which could be contaminated by the circus animals. “The presence of large number of filthy animals and still filthier camp followers so close to the tank is undesirable,” states his letter.

The circuses, he argues, bring undesirable characters to a sanitised neighbourhood. “The presence of a circus on the maidan brings a large collection of bad characters into a respectable portion of the town where their presence is undesirable,” he says, and emphasises that the Mananchira Maidan is best left alone, except for cricket and recreation. He urges the board to pass orders, “once and for all which will preserve the maidan in Calicut as an open space to be used for the recreation of the people of Calicut.”

Circuses and other performances in the maidan also drew the Municipal Council and the Collector, who represented the government, into a grey area regarding who had the charge of the maidan. A letter from council chairman M. Krishnan Nair to Collector R.B. Wood following Volz’s petition claims the practice of seeking the Collector’s permission to allow performances at the maidan was followed after 1903 and he also cites an act according to which “the chairman of the Municipal Council is the authority to grant licence.” A fence around the maidan was being maintained by the council, Krishnan Nair points out. “These were the reasons which induced me to think it was not necessary to consult the Collector before granting licence,” he writes.

Wood in his reply to Langby’s petition asserts the maidan was always under the Collector’s control. He goes back in time and highlights instances where the Collector intervened to prevent leasing out of the maidan for performances.

A note from the acting collector to the council chairman in mid-1910 tries to close the issue of circuses at the maidan. It says considering the money spent on cleaning the tank it is important to keep it unpolluted. He writes, “Circuses will not therefore be allowed to occupy the maidan in the vicinity of the tank in future.”

(Source: Regional Archives, Kozhikode A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents)