The Great Indian Circus is in Madurai. The writer goes backstage to find what life is like for the artistes

He hangs like a bat under the canopy. His limbs spread like wings which he flaps and swings across to grab a bar. To and fro he oscillates thrice before leaping on to another bar. “When I swing up in the air, I feel like an angel in the heavens,” says Ramu, a senior trapeze artiste at the Great Indian Circus that has pitched its tent at Krishnan Koil ground in Iyer Bungalow. “I was born and raised in a circus in Chinnamannur as both my parents were trapeze artistes. Together we travelled all over the country and that’s how I speak five languages,” he says.

At 10 in the morning, the space inside the iron gates looks like a tiny hamlet, with numerous cone-like tents where artistes get ready for the noon show. Sujatha, the hoopla dancer thrusts blobs of cream on her face, smears what she calls ‘rose powder’ on her cheeks and ties her hair in a tight tuft behind. Her little son plays beside a rickety iron cot while in another tent a group of men sip morning tea. A welder mends a broken iron rod, a tailor sews a torn tent with ease piercing his needle in and out of the cloth and an elderly man weaves plastic ropes into a huge net. It’s another busy start for them. “This will be fastened beneath the main kottai, where the trapeze artistes will swing,” says the 60-year-old worker. The overbearing stench of animal poop is hard to escape at the backside of the main tent, where four camels, a horse, an elephant and few dogs stand tethered, munching on their morning meals.

Three teams take care of the catering for the entire group. They churn out kilos of rice and curries thrice a day and work in shifts. They look self-sufficient, engrossed in their jobs, living in a world of their own. Junior artistes and labourers, who do the job of setting up the tents and laying the chairs, live in tents while senior artistes and supervisors are provided rented rooms or houses nearby.

“Circus is one place where people from various parts of the country become one huge family,” says Ashok, who has been a juggler for 41 years. “Though we have hierarchy, it’s not strict like in other fields of art.” Ashok has retired from performances and now plays the role of a manager. He also trains young artistes in trapeze and juggling. “My father P.M. Miner was a famous trapeze artiste in those days and we owned a circus company in Tirunelveli. Later, in the 80’s we suffered huge losses and closed down,” he recalls.

“Many circus artistes have quit. Our children are educated and reluctant to take forward the art,” says Babu, the Supervisor, who has been with The Great Indian circus for 27 years, right from when it was started as a small company in Kerala. “Cinema and TV have robbed our audience. The response has dwindled so much that our shows run to empty seats,” rues Babu. “Once, we had 400 employees and now only 200 remain.” The show time has also reduced to an hour-and-a-half from three hours. Certain advanced tricks are no longer performed as there are no such skilled senior artistes left and the number of items has also come down.

Under the circus tent, everyone is an artiste and they dissolve differences. The tents have been a witness to love affairs, weddings and events of child birth. It’s been a decade for Nauva in circus life and he tied the nuptial knot with Anjum a co-artiste two years ago when they fell in love. “Circus is not just a profession; it’s a way of life where relationships happen on the move. Only if the spouse cooperates, can a circus artiste perform well on the stage,” says Nauva, who belongs to a group of six artistes from Manipur. “We were entertainers at a club. After seeing our dance, the circus manager recruited us.”

Raja from Mayavaram, who plays the clown, says that his romance with the polka-dot clothing started when he was a seven-year-old. “Since I was expressive, I was made the joker. The challenge for a circus clown is to make people laugh without using any words and dialogues. One should be able to tickle the funny bone with just facial expressions and body language,” he says. Raja appears on stage along with Shakeel Khan and Jamal, the other two clowns and the trio call themselves as brothers.

“Lakshmi is an intelligent girl. She quickly grasps my gestures and acts accordingly,” says Badshah Khan, the ring master, about his elephant, the last of the half-a-dozen pachyderms that the circus owned once. Badshah, who has also trained lions and tigers, is known for his ability to gauge an animal’s mood. “It is indeed dangerous,” he admits. “But, it’s an art to communicate with the animals.”

The Great Indian Circus will be in Madurai till January 27 and their next halt is Sivakasi.

Grades of circuses

Circuses were initially graded as A, B and C based on the variety and number of animals they had.

Tigers, lions and hippos were banned a decade ago and now, elephants and horses are also expected to be banned soon.

Now, circuses are graded depending on the number of pitch poles and the seating capacity of the tent. Those that use eight poles are classified as A, six poles as B and four poles come under C.