SOCIETY Through an exhibition of photographs on the history of Indian circus, its curator Nisha P R pleads with us to not forget this world, writes SHAILAJA TRIPATHI

Nisha P R couldn’t stay indifferent to the indifference and disdain that exists for the world of circus. Being from Kerala, a state which, alongside Maharashtra, boasts a rich history of circus in India, Nisha empathised with the community. Then her Ph.D. on the history of Indian circus and circus performances in twentieth century Kerala gave her an entry into this complex world. to view it up and close. The research scholar is now showing us the glimpses of the past of Indian circus through an exhibition of rare and archival photographs at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library titled ‘Indian Circus’.

Rich history

“What I have tried to do is, I have incorporated collections mainly from Kerala and Maharashtra. These are the places which have a rich history in circus. This is probably the first time a public institution is hosting an exhibition on circus in India. Abroad there are lots of museums and archives. like in America. British circuses have their own museums. In India we have nothing, no study has been done. Indian circus has not been patronized and not been documented. We are studying cinema, marginal cultures but circus hasn’t come up in any of those yet…,” says Nisha of Delhi University.

Sourced from various private collections, the 31 photographs present different aspects of circus life. Kerala-based Grand Fairy Circus’ famous animal trainer Gobi posing regally flanked by two elephants, ‘Fearless Madhavi’ lying playfully amidst three sleeping tigers, circus girls lovingly holding two tiger cubs, a child artiste in action, picture postcard of a German circus Hagen-Wallace taken in the 1930s, Rayman Circus’ Gloria Vandermielen during a performance and many more — the 31 black and white photographs weave a narrative that’s different from what’s often heard and believed. “We often hear that circus artistes lead a sad life with only tragic tales to tell but there is another side to the story too. Yes, it is not a very easy life but they are happy. Animals are not always ill-treated, nor so are the children. Look at the photograph where these women hold these cubs so lovingly. I am not justifying any malpractices but it is a complex world. So the solutions too have to be in conjunction with this reality. There is a ban on child labour now but some of the kids who work there are orphans or come from such modest backgrounds that they can be pushed into labour jobs,” explains Nisha, who got hooked onto the subject in her university via a sweeper, a circus artist.

Her research took her to various veterans and Belgian artist Gloria Vanderwielen was one of them. “She is 72, speaks fluent Malayalam, has been staying in Kerala ever since she came here but is still not an Indian citizen. She remembers her days with Rayman Circus so fondly. She describes those as the best days of her life.”

Nisha observed low education levels amongst circus artistes as yet another marked feature, but on the other hand “they can speak so many languages. Circus artistes can speak half a dozen languages.”

In the 150 year-old history of circus in India, Maharashtra and Kerala have played an important role. “I will have to look at Maharashtra because that’s where the first few circus companies were started. The peculiarity I found was that while there the performances were more animal-based, in Kerala acrobatics were more important.”

Besides Gloria, other stalwarts of the fraternity also appear in photographs like Damoo Dhotre, an astounding animal trainer with Sonia, his favourite pet cheetah, Keeleri Kunhikannan, a Kalari artiste who started a circus school which would train acrobats. for circus. Dhotre worked with Ringling Bros, considered world’s greatest circus and is the subject of a biography on him published in the US.

Once a thriving affair, today there are just 250 circuses in India. Old circuses like Rayman Circus, Jumbo Circus, Rambo Circus, Royal Circus and Gemini Circus are very much in circulation. “They are mostly travelling. While Rayman travels to UP and Bihar, Gemini goes to Kerala once every year. The problem is that people have stopped sending their kids to circuses to work. A circus academy has also been started in Kerala but nobody is applying because people associate it with children and gender exploitation, illiteracy and sad stories. I think the government can start some parallel circus companies which can be in tune with animal and human rights.” Nisha now plans to take the exhibition to Thalaserry in Kerala and Pune and Mumbai in Maharashtra.

(The exhibition is on at NMML foyer till January 24, 2013)