The waning appeal of the big top

On a downward spiral: Acrobat and trapeze artistes in circuses, who have replaced wild animals — following a ban on them being made to perform for entertainment — are fighting for attention in big cities such as Bengaluru. Many circuses, however, still have dogs and horses performing for the crowd.  

Dancing bears; tigers and lions jumping through flaming hoops; monkeys dressed up in clothes and acting like human beings; acrobats, fire eaters, jugglers, and clowns mingling with them under the ringmaster’s gaze… and the roar of the crowd under the big top. The circus of the past was a different beast before the ban on wild animals being made to perform for entertainment.

Cut to the present. At an open space adjacent to the Kengeri bus terminal in Bengaluru, a big tent has been pitched. Next to it are banners promising unbelievable acts by daring artistes, part of the famous Rambo Circus. Tickets are reasonably priced, starting from ₹80 and going up to ₹250. But it is when one enters the modernised, fireproof and waterproof units held together by ropes and huge poles that reality strikes: Traditional circuses are dying. It is the weekend, and the stands, which can accommodate 1,200 people, are just a fourth full. On weekdays, the numbers are even worse, with just 30 seats getting filled.

Dwindling crowd

Acrobat and trapeze artistes who have replaced performing animals are fighting for attention in an urban India that enjoys television on demand and unlimited Internet access. Circus staff agree that they are faced with dwindling crowd, especially in big cities.

Another famous circus that tours the city at least once a year is the Jumbo Circus. It was in the city in May, but the number of audience was only marginally better.

“In just last 10 years, six to seven small circus companies have wound up. For the bigger ones, business is usually good during festival time and school holidays, but that too only on weekends,” said Raju Isaac, manager of Rambo Circus, who will be leaving the city on Monday.

The circus in India is on a downward spiral, said Sujit Dilip, proprietor of Rambo Circus.

“Unlike in foreign countries, the circus is not considered a culture in India, though it has a history of over 130 years.”

On when the downfall began, circus company owners said it was with the advent of television. Then came the Internet. The final nail in the coffin was the ban on using wild animals in the circus. “Suddenly, we weren’t allowed to have animals performing. They were the biggest crowd-pullers. It was the time when many circus companies closed down. Others were forced to innovate. It was a huge financial burden for us and we got no support from the government,” said Mr. Dilip, whose father, P.T. Dilip, clubbed three circuses — Victoria, Arena and the Great Oriental — to form the Rambo Circus in 1991. The circus still has dogs and horses performing for the crowd. The circus industry was also hit following the ruling against employing child artistes. “Until then, we were training artistes from their childhood. It was a family profession. Now, artistes sign up with us for a year and do not stay beyond that. We are constantly forced to hunt for new performers,” said a staff member of Jumbo Circus.

Today, the biggest problem for companies is of availability of open grounds within cities.

“We are forced to set up on the outskirts. This also keeps many people away from the circus. The playgrounds within the city are not given to us, and renting a private ground is very expensive,” said Mr. Isaac.

While owners of some circuses hope that with innovation and new acts they would be able to survive, others are not so optimistic. “I see a very bleak future for the Indian circus industry. For the last few years, many companies have not seen enough crowd, forcing them to close. To bring in foreign artistes or introduce any innovation requires a huge investment, which circus companies cannot make. The circus is dying and it is dying fast” said Mohandas, manager of Gemini Circus, which stopped performing less than two months ago.

A lucrative arena for foreign artistes

After the ban on wild animals, circus companies had no option but to innovate and reinvent themselves. Many signed pacts with the Russian Cultural Ministry and started hosting circus artistes from there in local shows.

Soon, artistes from nations such as Kenya, Uzbekistan, Nepal, and South America became the centre of attraction.

These artistes perform the most dangerous stunts. For instance, Columbian artiste Juan Carlos Poveda performs the ‘Wheel of death’ show for Rambo Circus. The ‘Wheel of death’ is a large rotating apparatus on which artistes showcase their acrobatic skills. Another similar apparatus is the ‘Globe of death’ where motorcycle riders perform stunts in a large steel ball.

However, safety gear is rarely used, and the artistes depend on luck and skill every time they go into the ring.

“The globe of death and wheel of death are big draws today. To this, we have also included a laser show and more gymnastic performances,” said Sujit Dilip, proprietor of Rambo Circus.

Demonetisation effect

Demonetisation has had its effect on circuses too. Circus companies say that business has gone down by 30% since November 2016.

“The entire entertainment industry was badly affected because of demonetisation and so were we. For close to six months, we had fewer audiences, even during the season,” said Sujit Dilip, proprietor of Rambo Circus.

Circus companies were forced to reduce the size of the production too. Rambo Circus, for instance, is running shows in a much smaller tent in the city. “We even packed up the air-conditioned tents because we could not meet costs. We are hoping to get back to the original size in the coming months,” he added.

Fan club

To garner support for the art form, a group of circus enthusiasts started a circus fan club page on Facebook a few years ago. Anand Dhotre, great-grandson of famous circus artiste and ringmaster Damoo Dhorte, began the initiative. “We are trying to promote circus with the help of the Internet. Sadly, circus is no longer a go-to place for family outings. We want to change this,” said Mr. Dhotre, and added that a lot of fans had extended support across the country, including in Bengaluru.

“Circus should be considered as a traditional art form and preserved. The government should also extend support to the struggling circus industry,” he said.

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Printable version | May 16, 2021 12:32:42 AM |

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