A tightrope walker from Chhattisgarh performs on the streets of Tiruchi
Her stage is a length of rope stretched between poles; her props are metal plates, medium sized jugs, the steel frame of a cycle tyre, and a wooden pole twice her weight; her costume is dirty, yet flashy and her eyes are thickly lined with kohl: 14 year-old Maheswari from Chhattisgarh is a tightrope walker with a rare grace and an uncertain future.
Here in the city for the sixth consecutive year, Maheswari is accompanied by her family-cum-troupe members. They announce their arrival at crowded spaces around the city through drum rolls and begin piecing together the meagre framework where their dying format of street theatre will soon be showcased. “Earlier we used to perform at nearby places like Madurai as well, but over time we decided to stick to Tiruchi only,” says Lalita, the mother. In brusquely spoken Hindi, she refuses to reveal the reasons behind their decision and begins fussing over her daughter. The performance is about to begin.
While her parents and brother Purusottam belt out rustic rhythms from worn out instruments, Maheswari traverses the length of the rope in mid-air, and with nothing beneath to break an unfortunate fall. “Safeguards will mess with the excitement that our performance is supposed to stir within the audience,” says Purusottam in explanation, while Lalita chips in with a curt, “Mahes is an expert trained since she was eight. No need for protection.”
As if in confirmation, Maheswari begins deftly navigating her rope without any props at first. “This is just the trailer,” Purusottam yells over the drumbeats that are gaining momentum. When a small crowd begins forming around their clique, each member of the family becomes a performer, while the star of the show decides it’s time to enthral with her volley of props. While we watch, the girl moves back and forth with plates on her feet and jugs on her head; then rolls across the frame of a cycle tyre with her feet; and standing at the centre of the rope, she rapidly shuttles herself between invisible ends, all the time balancing a heavy pole.
However, the cheer raised by her audience is unconvincing.
“We will pack up and go back to our village Parsadi in a few days,” says a resigned Lalita. Timing their annual visits around Deepavali to cash-in on the festive mood, the family stays on for about a month staging at least five performances a day. “Now the festivals are over and the crowd is getting bored….time for us to get back to our own lives.” Though they are traditional tightrope walkers who roamed around in search of circuses and village festivals that would let them perform for a fee, the family is these days involved in agriculture. “There aren’t many of us left anymore,” says Purusottam, adding that most of the other families had either migrated to nearby cities or begun farming. On the upside, both Maheswari and Purusottam go to school and every year they come to Tiruchi on leave.
“We still continue to perform because it not only supplements our income, but also keeps our tradition alive,” says Lalita. In the one month that they spend away from home, the family makes anywhere between 8000 to 10,000 rupees. When asked why they avoid bigger cities, she replies promptly, “there is respect for neither art nor man in those big cities.”