A brief history of the Indian circus

Swift, suppleA Tanzanian artist performing at the Great Bombay Circus.Photo: M. Periasamy  

How many of you have gone to a circus show? If you have, you would probably love to know its origins in India. If you have not been to a circus before, I am sure you would want to, after reading this.

Circus shows are all about acrobats, jugglers, jokers, stunts and much more. Various items from the programme chart are added or removed to cater to the ever-changing taste of the audience.

There has been a debate as to when the tradition of circus entered India. Many believe that this entertainment became prominent in the late nineteenth century. India, being a culturally rich country of course has had many travelling entertainers, similar in lines to the circus artists.

The first Indian circus came into being in 1880, according to Philip Astley, an English riding master. All thanks to Vishnupant Chatre, without whose initiation Indians would have never enjoyed this kind of fun.

Vishnupant Chatre was a multi-faceted personality who was in command of the stables of the Rajah of Kurduwadi. He also used to perform stunts ably supported by the horses.

It is said that both Chatre and Rajah had once gone to see the Royal Italian Circus where Chiarini, an Italian director performed. Though Chatre was greatly impressed by the performance, he was irked by a comment made by Chiarini that India(at that point in time) was not ready to have a circus of its own and it may take another ten years to start one.

Vishnupant Chatre along with his wife decided to start his own circus. The first show of Chatre’s Great Indian Circus was held in 1880 and the audience was a select group of people, Rajah inclusive.

Following the footsteps of Chiarini, Chatre’s brainchild , the Great Indian Circus travelled across the length and breadth of the country. He is also said to have visited foreign countries but he returned home unable to match the standards of the giant circuses there. Coming to terms with reality, Chatre resumed his pursuit within the country.

In one such visit, he met Keeleri Kunhikannan, a martial arts teacher in the city of Tellicherry, Kerala. Chatre requested Kunhikannan, to train acrobats for his circus company. In 1901, Kunhikannan inaugurated a circus school in Chirakkara, near Kollam. This circus school gained popularity and churned out many performers, so much so that they started their own circus companies. Kamala Three Ring Circus needs a special mention here as what started humble went on to become a giant American-style six-pole three-ring circus, first of its kind in Asia. It is not without reason that Kunhikannan is called as the Father of Indian Circus, many of his students(Eg: Kannan Bombayo) gained international fame apart from becoming entrepreneurs. Today, India has many active circuses, thanks to the efforts of these gentlemen. Do they still attract enough audience, is a million dollar question.

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