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A fine balance

The well-known combo of acrobatics, clowns and glamorous cyclists is no longer enough to draw audiences, so the circus is out to learn new tricks. Photo: Clare Arni  

Ticket in hand, I walk down a carpeted path to the entrance of a massive tent. A huge globe, within which daring motorcycle acts will be performed, is stationed in one corner. There are poles and ropes and other paraphernalia. And outside are those familiar multi-coloured pillars, grille gates, large flex boards advertising popular acts, and an arched banner that screams ‘Grand Circus’ — not much has changed since I first visited a circus as a child 20 years ago.

The performers, in blue-and-white acrobat suits, emerge from the green room waving at the audience as film songs begin to blare. The clown, in his flowing flowery shirt and trousers, stands out. They are about to perform the flying trapeze act — always the circus’s most exciting and risky stunt.

The well-known combo of acrobatics, clowns and glamorous cyclists is no longer enough to draw audiences, so the circus is out to learn new tricks. Photo: A.T. Mohanraj

The well-known combo of acrobatics, clowns and glamorous cyclists is no longer enough to draw audiences, so the circus is out to learn new tricks. Photo: A.T. Mohanraj  

The troupe begins climbing the rope ladder to the pedestal and the trapezes that swing high above a large safety net. The catcher, now positioned upside down on the trapeze, begins swinging slowly. As the music picks up momentum, so does he. At the other end, another artiste waits for a trapeze to swing to her. She grabs it and lunges into the air. A perfect somersault later, she grabs his hands. The audience cheers and whistles. Now it is the clown’s turn to take the plunge. But he is clearly terrified. When he finally does, he can’t seem to reach the catcher’s hands; the catcher manages to grab the clown’s pants though, which come off easily. Children burst out laughing. He makes it safely back to the trapeze at the other end, and the act is over.

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“One day, in the 1950s, when I was four, I found myself in a circus camp. I was the youngest member, and grew up as the pet of the crew. It was like a large family. My mother and aunt were also circus artistes. I worked with the company for 16 years touring the country,” recalls Nirmala K.M., 65, from Thalassery, a coastal town in North Kerala, known as the cradle of the Indian circus. Many like Nirmala joined the circus at a very young age as their families saw it as a means of livelihood. “There were many children in each family and one or two were sent to circuses in the hope that at least they would not starve,” she says. Nirmala had a tutor at the camp and she was one of the lucky few to learn to read and write.

Running a circus was a profitable business in those days. Politicians like Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi and V.K. Krishna Menon were patrons and introduced measures such as abolishing entertainment tax, allowing railway concessions, and reducing the rent for grounds, recalls M.V. Shankaran, who owns the Kannur-based Gemini Group, pointing to an old black-and-white picture of him with Nehru. “There were times when we camped in places like Aligarh, Meerut and Sonepat during the festival season and performed five to six shows to a full gallery every day,” says Nirmala. But public interest in the circus slowly waned and today there is very little support or recognition from the government, says Rathi, 66, also a former performer. And her sentiment is echoed by much of the community.

A visit to Grand Circus in Ernakulam this Onam proved their concerns are well founded. A gallery that is just a fourth filled; worn-out sheets and creaky poles scaffolding the tents; the weary look of the performers; long silences from the audience broken by occasional whistles and cheering from children — they all tell a bleak story.

In its early days, the circus was a rare spectacle that brought much joy to sleepy towns and added a unique flavour to the festive season in villages. “Most acts that were once exclusively done in circuses are now performed on television — juggling, acrobatics, gymnastics, aerial acts like the trapezium and aerial silk, fire-eating, and sword-swallowing,” says veteran artiste and trainer V. Sreedharan. But Anand O.P., manager of Raj Kamal Circus, is more optimistic: “Even after cinema and television became popular, audiences that loved the circus did turn up. If skilled performers and its lost grandeur are brought back to the big top along with better audience facilities, this public will definitely come back.”

It is difficult to run a circus company in India today. There were around 300 companies in 1990; this has come down to about 30. “We spend Rs. 75,000 to meet the daily expenses of a crew of around 200. If the industry has to survive, the Centre has to provide subsidies and introduce measures for the welfare of artistes and other employees,” says M. Chandran from Thalassery, who has been running Grand Circus for the last 18 years.

The absence of animals, say circus owners, is a major reason for the decline in enthusiasm. Wild animals were banned from circuses in India in 2013. While animal rights activists and organisations have criticised the training and treatment of animals at camps, most owners, including Shankaran and Chandran, insist that they were well cared for. However, it’s obvious that caging and training animals for entertainment cannot be the way ahead.

As she returns to her tent after a cycling act, Geetha, 40, from Palakkad, says she is happy that she has a stable income. She met her husband here. Performers share a rare camaraderie, says Vanaja P.K., a former artiste. “Our job is risky and we support and motivate each other. When we fall sick or have an accident, we know our friends will be there for us.”

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It has been 136 years since the first circus tent was pitched by an Indian company. Though India had a tradition of travelling performers, a circus in the form devised in 1770 by Philip Astley, known as the father of the modern circus, came into being here only in 1880. The first one, The Great Indian Circus, was Vishnupant Chatre’s response to Italian circus owner Giuseppe Chiarini’s challenge to Indians to do the tricks his troupe performed. Chatre’s circus, based in Maharashtra, performed in Sri Lanka, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan and China. Later, many Indian circuses went on to do successful foreign tours, and artistes like Kannan Bombayo, the legendary rope dancer, earned international recognition.

The well-known combo of acrobatics, clowns and glamorous cyclists is no longer enough to draw audiences, so the circus is out to learn new tricks. Photo: Clare Arni

The well-known combo of acrobatics, clowns and glamorous cyclists is no longer enough to draw audiences, so the circus is out to learn new tricks. Photo: Clare Arni  

Maharashtrians and later Malayalis dominated the industry, while entrepreneurs and artistes from Karnataka, West Bengal, and the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh also had a strong presence. According to Sreedharan Champad, writer and a former artiste, around 70 per cent of owners and artistes were from Kerala till the end of the 1970s. Today, most artistes are from Assam, Manipur, West Bengal, Bihar and Nepal. “When a circus aspirant joins the camp, an advance of Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 1,00,000 is paid. The trainee’s food, accommodation and other basic expenses are taken care of during the training period. Once they master the tricks, they earn anywhere from Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 30,000 a month depending on the nature of the act and their experience,” says Prameela A., who hails from a family of circus entrepreneurs and currently manages Raj Kamal Circus with her husband. Artistes from countries like Russia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Mongolia have become the central attraction of many Indian companies today. They are provided better facilities and paid around Rs. 3,000-Rs. 5,000 per day, much more than what local artistes get.

C.C. Ashok Kumar is the president of the Indian Circus Employees Union. He says the current policies, which treat the circus as a “touring business”, should change, and the circus should be recognised as a performing art. Comprehensive measures including better wages, welfare measures, and legal protection are necessary, he says. Currently, Kerala is the only state to provide a pension to veteran and indigent circus artistes. Soorya Krishnamoorthy, former chairperson of Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, emphasises the need for a rehabilitation centre to help and support injured and veteran circus artistes. In a first initiative of its kind, Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi honoured 21 veteran circus artistes last year for the 160th birth anniversary of Keeleri Kunhikannan, but that is just a beginning.

Almost everyone I spoke to agreed on one thing — the need to set up a national-level training institute run by the central government. “Learning circus acts is like learning sports or an art form; children will be better artistes if they start out young,” says Raghu, the manager of Gemini Circus. In 2011, the Supreme Court banned children under the age of 14 from performing in circuses. “The training should begin when their bodies are flexible enough to learn the tricks. This should be done at centres similar to sports and art institutes where children are trained based on a well-defined syllabus along with formal education,” says Ashok Kumar. The exploitation of children could also be prevented if training is provided at a government-run centre where the children are also provided regular education, he adds.

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The Kerala government started a Circus Academy, the first of its kind in the country, in Thalassery in 1901, with Kalaripayattu and gymnastics instructor Keeleri Kunhikannan. Chatre met Kunhikannan when his circus camped in Thalassery in 1887, and offered full support to the centre. Kunhikannan provided free training and the centre played an important role in the growth of circuses. In the 1950s, Damodaran of the famous Kamala Three Ring Circus, once Asia’s biggest, earmarked land to build a circus college and a students’ hostel. But nothing came of it. In 2010, a new academy was started in Thalassery, again by the Kerala government, with just 10 trainees. This year, that too became defunct with 16-year-old Roshan Rahman from Sonarpur, West Bengal, remaining its only student. The State sports ministry decided to revive the academy in June 2016, but as a gymnastics centre. Nobody is agreed on how to go ahead and all plans are in limbo now.

The well-known combo of acrobatics, clowns and glamorous cyclists is no longer enough to draw audiences, so the circus is out to learn new tricks. Photo: Clare Arni

The well-known combo of acrobatics, clowns and glamorous cyclists is no longer enough to draw audiences, so the circus is out to learn new tricks. Photo: Clare Arni  

While most entertainment shows constantly reinvent themselves, the circus has remained the same for years now. Some companies have begun now to look for ways to meet the expectations of new audiences. While Kunhikannan’s training centre established a link with Indian martial arts like Kalaripayattu, a recent experiment brought the circus together with theatre. The show, put up by students of National School of Drama and the performers of Grand Circus in 2011, and titled ‘Clowns and Clouds’, was a fusion of circus acts with a theatrical presentation of classical and folk tales. Many leading companies like the Canada-based Cirque Du Soleil, the largest theatrical production in the world, combine circus acts, theatre, music and dance, and have been running successful shows across the world since the 1990s.

This month, noted magician from Kerala, Gopinath Muthukad, announced the launch in Thiruvananthapuram of a show called ‘Circus Castle’ that would combine circus acts with magic tricks. Meanwhile, companies like Rambo Circus have introduced air-conditioned tents, high-end light and sound equipment, and online booking to woo younger audiences. It’s touching and immensely encouraging how, despite the huge and obvious threat from television, cinema and the Internet, circus companies stay determined to hang on to their spot in the entertainment arena.

Nileena M.S. is a freelance journalist from Kerala.


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Printable version | Oct 27, 2021 9:54:16 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/A-fine-balance/article15634141.ece

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