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Circuses likely to go extinct in India

Sabina Maharjan performing her hoop routine during a show by Great Bombay Circus in Chennai

Sabina Maharjan performing her hoop routine during a show by Great Bombay Circus in Chennai   | Photo Credit: B Velankanni Raj

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The country’s oldest circus company, Great Bombay Circus, has been enthralling audiences for a century. Today, though, its survival is a question mark

With 20 minutes still left to go before the Great Bombay Circus (GBC) troupe starts its 1 pm show at the SIAA Ground in Kannappar Thidal, a man in his thirties comes rushing to the venue’s entrance.

Holding firm onto the man’s left hand is his four-year-old son, but the duo is stopped by PV Jeyaprakashan, the circus troupe’s manager, who informs them that there is still time before they start letting in the audience.

“We’ve come early to find the best seats. Please, can you let us in now?” the man asks, to which Prakash (as he prefers to be called) responds: “Why are you in a hurry? There are only six people here.”

Once upon a time in India

It is a weekday, and schools have re-opened, which makes Prakash’s reduced expectations seem logical. But his answer has more than just happenstance attached to it.

GBC — the oldest circus company in India — may indeed be on its last legs, and it is ironical that this is happening in its 100th year of existence.

“It is tough running the business these days,” says KM Sanjeev, one of GBC’s managing partners, over phone from Mumbai.

The glorious days do not belong in the distant past either. In fact, studying the drop in number of circus-themed films to have released in various Indian languages over the past decade would help one understand the massive drop in popularity of circuses.

There was a point in time when some of tinsel town’s biggest stars (Raj Kapoor, MG Ramachandran, Shashi Kapoor, Prem Nazir and Suriya to name a few) played circus artistes on screen.

Then, there is Thalassery native CK Jayaraj; a man who, more than anybody else in this business, has rubbed shoulders with these stars, either while playing their dupe, or when training them (he was Suriya’s coach, helping the actor prepare for his role in 7aum Arivu).

CK Jayaraj of Great Bombay Circus trained actor Suriya for his role in the film ‘7aum Arivu’

CK Jayaraj of Great Bombay Circus trained actor Suriya for his role in the film ‘7aum Arivu’   | Photo Credit: B Velankanni Raj

“I was Shashi Kapoor’s dupe in Insaaniyat (1974) and Raj Kapoor’s in Mera Naam Joker (1970). Those days I fancied the movie business. I even spoke to Shashi Kapoor about it, and he agreed to sponsor my stunt union membership fee. But I did not have the means to relocate to Bombay. So I had to drop my plans,” he laughs.

Sea change

Jayaraj started out in the circus business at the age of 10; his father too was a trainer like him. Now 72, and with a face that belies his age, Jayaraj rues the changes (discounting the wild animals ban) that has crippled the business.

“If you are to become a circus artiste, then one must start preparing for it from a young age,” he notes.

Since 2011, however, when the Supreme Court of India enforced an amendment to the Child Labour Act that prohibits circus companies from employing anyone under the age of 18, the number of Indian performers have gone down starkly, he says.

Performers at Great Bombay Circus in Chennai

Performers at Great Bombay Circus in Chennai   | Photo Credit: B Velankanni Raj

“I remember when the order came... boss called me and said we cannot continue to work with the 15 children I had trained for several years. I was in tears,” he adds.

The order came in the wake of legitimate concerns about the treatment of child performers by circus companies, but Prakash opts to see it as a “villain” that has threatened the very business that employs and provides for his family.

Without the guarantee of a stable income, families with circus lineage have all opted to steer clear of the business, like Jayaraj’s children.

These changes, in its wake, albeit inadvertently, have helped to increase the diversity quotient at least.

Ethiopian performers at Great Bombay Circus in Chennai

Ethiopian performers at Great Bombay Circus in Chennai   | Photo Credit: B Velankanni Raj

Where once, as Prakash adds, the circus business was “90% Malayalis” — the town of Thalassery has a long connection with the business; Keeleri Kunhikkannan, known as the father of Indian circus and GBC’s founding partner, hails from here; Thalassery was also the place where the Government of Kerala set up its short-lived circus academy 10 years ago — the shortfall in talent opened up avenues for people of Nepali origin and Northeast India.

Making a compromise

Sabina Maharjan, 27, is one of them. Hailing from Hetauda, Nepal, she enthrals the crowd with her ring dance — where she makes over a dozen hoops go in circles around the curves of her body in a rhythmic fashion.

Her three siblings are all in this business. But starting young meant that she had to compromise on education. “I did very little schooling because I got in to circus when I was seven,” she says.

“If you want to be a good circus artiste, you cannot focus on studies,” Jayaraj remarks.

Lesson in history
  • According to Sanjeev, the company’s inaugural show, under the name Grand Bombay Circus, was held in Hyderabad city in Sindh province of modern-day Pakistan.
  • In 1947, Grand Bombay Circus merged with White Way and Hind Lion Circuses promoted by Keeleri Kunhikkannan’s family to become the Great Bombay Circus.
  • Since then, the operative control of GBC has rested with the Kunhikannan family — first under KM Balagopal, and then being subsequently taken over by his sons KM Sanjeev and KM Dilipnath.
  • GBC’s first show in Madras was held in 1979.
  • When business was at its peak, Sanjeev says GBC used to collect ₹4 lakh from a weekend. “Today, our revenue has fallen by more than 40%.”
  • Only about seven major circus companies (GBC, Jumbo, Famous to name a few) exist in India today. More than a dozen big circus companies have shut down over the past two decades.

The oldest living example in GBC for the demography that chose work over wisdom is Tulsidas Chowdhury. In 1959, this native of Bihar, went against the wishes of his family and joined the circus. He was a Class VI student then; his diminutive stature (he is three-and-a-half feet tall) and his own personal liking for the business was a big factor in his call.

Tulsidas Chowdhury, at 74, is the oldest performer in Great Bombay Circus

Tulsidas Chowdhury, at 74, is the oldest performer in Great Bombay Circus   | Photo Credit: B Velankanni Raj

However, this trend is common everywhere.

Take the case of Yaret Tadesse: the 19-year-old Ethiopian acrobat only studied till secondary school in his home town of Addis Ababa. He is part of a group of six Ethiopians, who are performing at the GBC. His friend, Yosei, at 21, has been to Turkey, China, UAE, Spain, parts of Asia, and other African countries, performing with other circus companies, juggling and keeping the audience spellbound with his unicycle tricks.

But unlike in Chowdhury’s days, the modern-day audience has plenty to choose from, when it comes to witnessing daredevilry.

Trapeze artists performing during a Great Bombay Circus show in Chennai

Trapeze artists performing during a Great Bombay Circus show in Chennai   | Photo Credit: B Velankanni Raj

Television networks have conceptualised reality shows around this idea, and the advent of mobile phones has placed similar content in the hands of people (courtesy YouTube). The consequent drop in revenue (Indian performers are paid an average of ₹1,200 per day while the foreign artistes make ₹1,800 on average; payment varies on quality and calibre of artiste) makes the economics of sustenance disproportionate and not in favour of promoters like Sanjeev.

However, irrespective of GBC’s future, Sanjeev is certain that this is the last time Chennai residents will get to see his performers in action.

“We rent the ground from Southern Railway, and every time we come to Chennai, the ground has shrunk in size. I’m not sure if there will be any ground left in a few years to hold a circus,” he concludes.

Great Bombay Circus is on till February 17 at the SIAA Ground in Kannappar Thidal.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 8:26:46 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/circus-is-about-to-go-extinct-in-india/article30514120.ece

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