Mona, hailing from Karbi Anglong district in Assam, has spent her life in the country’s circus rings from the time she learnt to walk. Now, a ring dancer at the Grand Circus based in Kerala, she gets up at 5 a.m. every day and practises her moves for two hours. She has three performances daily, of five-minute duration each. She and her husband, Arjun Adhikari, who takes care of the office work at the circus, together earn Rs.20,000 a month.
Mona and Arjun are part of an inflow of migrant population that the circus rings have witnessed in the past few years, much like in other facets of Kerala’s life.
In fact, it is this inflow that sustains the art for which there are few takers among the local people. Of the 75 artistes at the Grand Circus, more than half hail from West Bengal and the seven sisters of the Northeast. Many came searching for other work and became circus artistes after a few months of training here. Add to this, the support staff of more than 100 and the percentage of migrants goes even higher.
The alarm bells began ringing for the circus industry in India in the mid-1990s. The huge evening and weekend crowds were already being pulled away by various sources of mass entertainment in a neo-liberalised economy. The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, which has been implemented strictly since 1996, sounded the death knell. The bears on bicycles and lions jumping through rings of fire disappeared from the circus rings.
Ban on animals
“Circuses were travelling zoos. Since there were only one or two zoos in every State, these were the only opportunities for people from other places to watch animals up close. The ban on animals did take away some of the charm of the circus. Now, only elephants, camels, horses, and dogs are permitted as per the rules. But the elephant will also be banned soon,” S.A. Haneef, manager of the Grand Circus, says.
The animal ban meant that the ‘ringmasters’ of yore also faded into oblivion. Another ban was on employing children in circus.
“The ban on child performers has reduced the number of gymnastic-related items. People who join the circus past their childhood have less flexible bodies, which makes it hard to train them,” says Chakravarthy from Dindigul, a 45-year-old veteran in the field who started performing when he was 10. Besides being a trapeze and fire dance performer, he does welding jobs in the ring to supplement his income.
Over the past two decades, many famed circus companies closed down owing to these multiple pressures. But some have survived, by cutting down on costs and bringing in innovative content. One of these is the Grand Circus’s tie up with the National School of Drama titled ‘Clowns and Clouds,’ a heady cocktail of acrobatics and theatre that was launched last year.
Though circus comes under the Union Ministry of Youth Affairs, not much help has been forthcoming to promote the art.
“The lack of unions or associations to air our grievances has meant that the art form is ignored by successive governments. In 2010, the State government with a view to training young talent opened a circus academy at Thalassery, the circus heartland of south India. The academy now exists only in name,” says M. Chandran, the owner of the Grand Circus and a native of Thalassery.
For now, the Grand Circus is running in a no profit-no loss mode. On an average, the daily expenses go up to Rs.75,000, including that for salaries, food, and accommodation for everyone. Added to that is the monthly transportation cost when they shift to a different place. The collection on peak days is in excess of Rs.2 lakh, but these are few and far between.
With salaries ranging from Rs.5,000 to Rs.18,000, most of the performers are ‘content’ at having a job. Some stay with their families, but with the children at a relative’s place to take care of their education.
Among these nomads are parents of software engineers, MBA graduates, and doctors. Some could afford to quit, but they prefer being footloose and being in the ring, which is the only thing they know. And they travel on, with their tents, portable kitchens, dish antennas, and TV sets to the next city, to conjure up more tricks.