City boy Achuthanand Tanjore Ravi stayed with circus artistes to tell their life stories through photographs

Away from the dizzying splash of colour, glamour and lights at the big top, what is life like in a circus? What is the social reality behind the hair-raising performances and the cheerful masks? Well, young photo documenter Achuthanand Tanjore Ravi now brings to us a slice of reality from circus life. This photo series will be featured in BBC’s ‘In Pictures’, besides in the website Vice, known for offbeat photo and video documentaries.

Sharing a tent

It took two years for Achuthanand to get a circus troupe to let him stay with them. Achuthanand spent three weeks in a circus, living out of tents and sharing their routine. He was allotted a tent that he shared with a clown. “It was an amazing encounter and we became friends,” says this 22-year-old Chennai-born HR professional, who is now based in Bangalore.

The toughest part of the assignment was winning the confidence of the circus artistes. “I did not want them to pose for me. I wanted to capture their lives,” explains Achuthanand. “Documentary shoots require trust building.”

During the first week of his stay, Achuthanand did not even bring out his camera. He lived like all the artistes, experienced their Spartan life in makeshift tents, though they now have televisions and a basic cooking range. On each day of his stay, he woke up along with the 200-odd circus artistes to assemble for practise at 5 a.m. Every single day, he joined in the casual banter and chitchat between shows, and in the gusto that came with house-full shows on weekends and the stoic resignation of performing to empty galleries during weekdays.

Achuthanand Ravi opted for black-and-white photographs as he considers colours a ‘disturbance’. “It was different with my Kumbh work as those photos captured culture and so needed colours. These circus shots are about life and emotions, and black-and-white works best here,” he says. The unobtrusive directness is a big plus for this series.

A closed community

The circus community is a closed one, in that only those born in circus families get trained and become circus artistes. Family tents, male tents and female tents are out of bounds for each other. Since the living is in canvas tents, security is basically about trust and group ethics.

Circus artistes had always intrigued Achuthanand, and he wanted to understand their lives and art. “Seeing it close now, I want to show the world how dependent these artistes are on spectator response. They have no other financial support or skills that can help them make a living outside the circus. They teach their children basic reading and counting, but not much else. Children as young as two years get inducted into circus training. The effort that each of them puts in to mastering a technique or a move is incredible. Once this is done, they simply move on to the next skill... there is no end to their training. Knowledge sharing happens within the group. The circus artistes are quite happy out there right now, but the future looks bleak since the number of audience is dwindling, as people prefer visiting a mall or a movie theatre rather than a circus,” he says.