Despite the ban on animal acts and the labour crunch, companies like Crown Circus promise to thrill their audience
The circus, long romanticised in popular culture and literature, has had to adapt rapidly to the changing times. Counted among the oldest forms of public entertainment, the circus – big top, ringmaster, lion-tamer and all - has had to reinvent itself in a kinder and more politically correct avatar.
The show goes on nonetheless for companies like Crown Circus, which has pitched up its tents at the Corporation Grounds in Anna Nagar, Tiruchi until September 16. “The circus is still popular in India, but the banning of animals like the lion, tiger, panther, monkey and green parrots has hit our business,” says K.P.Unni, manager of the Bangalore-based company.
The Central Zoo Authority is also considering a ban on elephant performances, and has started restricting the inter-state permits issued to circus companies to transport pachyderms, says Unni. In a matter of two or three years, there may be no elephants left in circuses, according to him.
Animal rights activism and general audience apathy are just some of the obstacles facing the circus business in India these days. Increasingly projected as an unstable and dangerous means to earn a living, the circus is in the midst of a labour crunch. Veteran circus performers themselves prefer to educate their children in other fields.
“The ban on employing artistes below 14 years of age has limited our staff intake,” says Unni. “Actually you need to start training in childhood to become equipped for life in the circus, but kids these days are made to study with a well-paying job in mind. This is also the reason why we have had to bring performers from Europe and Africa.”
An artist’s day is full of performances and practice sessions. “We don’t get a vacation, though we are allowed to go home whenever we want,” says Unni, who started his career in Devar Films before switching to circus management. He later qualifies it with “once we find the replacement staff.”
The absence of a contract means that artists can hop between companies.
“We don’t have to pay entertainment tax,” says Unni, “but a medium-sized company like ours needs an average earning of at least Rs50,000 daily to stay functional. We have other expenses like the electricity, staff salaries, diesel, animal maintenance and so on.”
How the Big Top spins
Maintaining each of the three horses that the Crown Circus has brought to Tiruchi takes around Rs. 700 per day, while the two camels each need fodder worth Rs800, including a gruel made of fenugreek. The circus has also got performing Pomeranian dogs on its roster of 30 attractions. All of these are used in tricks that don’t strain them, assures the manager.
“We have not closed down any act due to the unavailability of artists,” says Unni. “But the time duration of our shows (Crown Circus is offering three every day) has been shortened. We now plan only for no more than a 2-hour show these days, because nobody has the time to sit longer.”
Crown Circus uses a fireproof tent that is secured with pegs dug 6ft into the ground and covered with mud to withstand Tiruchi’s strong winds. “Our tent masters are all self-taught engineers,” says Unni proudly.
All circus companies keep in touch with each other to devise an annual schedule to avoid date clashes. “The circus has to work for at least 25 days in a month ,” says Unni.
With a history that starts in the late 19th century, circus artists were among the first to be employed in India’s nascent film industry. Today, as with most folk arts, the juggernaut of cinema has nudged the circus out of public consciousness.