Is it curtains?

THE LIVE band strikes up a catchy tune and the bright lights dazzle the eye. Men and women in shimmering costumes line up ahead of a procession of horses and elephants. Trapeze lines begin to swing as the net is spread underneath. The music dips and swells. A cacophony of clowns climbs the rope ladder to share the high platform with the artistes. A trip and an exaggerated fall and the applause joins the music. The circus, that nomadic tent show of breathtaking performances, is on.

But there is something wrong. Most of the seats around the central ring are empty at this noon show. The galleries are full but at Rs. 10 a space they are in the shadows and the viewers have to clap louder to be heard. There is juggling, acrobatics with lighted candles, trampoline jumps, motor-cycle rides inside a globe, girls spinning from a giant clothes peg, sloped tight-rope walking, the works. But the routines lack zing, that extra something an artiste gives when the hall is full and the audience is cheering. It is a sad day for a show that offers wholesome fun for the entire family. In a world where space is at a premium the fairground is an anachronism.

Watching animals and humans perform on stage is a long tradition. What started under Romans as a bloody and brutal sport of chariot races and games calmed down to horse shows in a ring in modern times. In the 18th Century, the fairgrounds attracted large crowds to watch acrobats, jugglers, wild animals, freaks and of course, the clowns.

The travelling circus in its heyday from 1880 to 1920 had the `Greatest Show on Earth' by Barnum and Bailey. In the 1950s and 1960s, it declined but soon incarnated itself as an indoor show. The Ringling Brothers continued the custom and by the 1980s more than 30 circuses were touring the U.S. The Rayman Circus now on at the SIAA Grounds, looks back to 1924 for its origin. Born in Thellichery, Kerala, the small animated exhibition found a sponsor in the Maharaja of Ratlam , MP. Today 300 staff, 100 performers and nearly 40 animals travel all over India to pitch their beautiful tents and entertain groups of children. Plump and baby-faced Mithin Madangopal who grew up in this temporary home is its 3rd generation manager.

"Our greatest problem is the shrinking grounds,'' lament Mithin and father Madangopal. ``The minimum area of 300 x 300 ft that we need is no longer available in large cities.''

Mithin looks at the clattering train that crosses by. ``This is the only centrally located open area of this size. If the Railways decides on two more platforms this open ground will be closed for circus."

The problems don't stop there. Even after a slash the space rent is high. (How anyone can charge for that uneven, slushy, waterlogged, garbage littered piece of real estate that is reached through rows of protesting hawker lines will remain unanswered). Electricity rates will give you a shock. And the monsoon arrived late. But the show goes on.

The biggest setback is the ban on animals — the main draw in a circus. But rules are rules. ``Regulations do not permit performances by bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers and lions,'' says Ramalingam of SPCA. ``The ban extends to the use of fire-rings, beating and making a wild animal ride a horse. Even posters showing these acts are banned." How does the SPCA ensure this? ``Our inspectors and doctors visit the circus grounds soon after the troupe arrives. We check the cages for space and hygiene, the animals for health and diet, oversee the training methods and watch the shows for breach of law.''

Fine. But three weeks into the show no inspector has been to the grounds. ``It has been raining. The place will be slushy. Why don't you visit and report to us?'' is the reply.

And the show has been going on.

K. Babu, Secretary, Animal Welfare Board, reminds us of another impediment. ``The Performing Animals (Regn. Rules) Act, 2001 stipulates that any person training or exhibiting performing animals has to apply for registration with a fee of Rs. 500.'' Per animal? ``The directive is not clear,'' he confesses. ``We have asked the Central ministry for clarification.'' What happens in the meantime? ``The proprietor can pay Rs. 500 per animal and get them registered.'' Isn't that steep for a circus with 40 to 45 animals running to empty houses? ``Why can't there be presentations without animals?'' he suggests helpfully. For the million-dollar question, ``Will you take action if there is a default in payment?" ``Well....laws pertaining to animals are not a priority in our overloaded judicial system. So not everybody goes in for punitive action,'' is the final answer.

Is it curtains?

The show goes on in this ambivalent atmosphere.

"Our shows are for kids from rural areas,'' says Mithun. ``They can see wild animals only in circuses. That is why we carry the 55 truck equipment to places where both city and suburban children can enjoy it.'' The animal enclosure has apart from the regulars a donkey and a goat. ``In our own interest we look after the animals well. Rescued circus animals are supposed to be put in shelters. Who checks their welfare there? I hear Rs 6 crores have been earmarked for the shelters. With that money we can give a wonderful life to these animals. If they insist they can take away the surplus ones because animals do need open ground,'' argues Madanagopal.

``No one has been here to check our training methods or talk to the ring master. No photographs have been presented as evidence. We train the animals when they are very young. So where is the issue of cruelty? Aren't animal shows held all over the world?'' he asks.

In the last two years since the animal ban, circuses have run into rough weather. ``The railways do not give us wagons in time. Television has eaten into our market. But we believe nothing can replace a live show, an interactive clown. It will be a pity if this unique entertainment is allowed to die. For us it is more than that. It is a way of life."

The artistes have their own angle. ``I grew up here," says Christopher Joseph, the juggler. He joined the circus as a teenager. ``My wife and daughters are in Kolkata and visit me every year. My two sons are getting trained for the show.'' For him this is education enough.

Lucky Rana, Usha Madan and scores of other Darjeeling-based girls have been here since the age of five. ``We are taught the acts by trainers and to read and write by a senior artiste. We stay in a partitioned part of the tent and are one big family. We visit our parents once a year,'' they coo happily. Young Santosh, the star trapezer and Suresh Pandey, the globe rider, cannot think of a life outside. ``The applause keeps us going,'' says Santosh. ``Why can't they telecast our acts on TV?''

Retirement? Old age? ``We are paid well and we save. We are all absorbed in some capacity and our work life is long. For us it is a service.''

It is time to leave. Nearly 100 children from the IDPL Hr. Sec. School are clapping for the clown. Twins Vaishali and Vaishnavi are there with parents and grandmother. ``I take the kids to every circus in town,'' beams grandma. ``It is a family outing we don't miss. The kids love to see the animals. It will be a big loss if circuses close down.'' An opinion shared by the entire audience.

``We will try our best to keep the show going,'' Madanagopal assures.

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