He is the only Indian to be featured on the cover page of Planet Circus magazine, not once but twice. A feat this huge but all hushed up. It was only last year that the 42-year-old Biju Nair, one of the clowns of Rambo Circus, told his children what he did for a living. He was scared that his children could be ashamed to have a “clown” for a father.
Seeti, as Nair is known on stage, is now in Mumbai with his entire troupe, performing at the Bandra Reclamation grounds until December end. Speaking to The Indian Express about his life as a travelling clown and stage artiste, Nair expressed that he has come a long way since running away from home and arriving in Mumbai at the age of 10.
Reminscing the past, he said he had to do various odd jobs until he chanced upon Apollo Circus in Jogeshwari. Even though he started off as a security guard there, he was always fascinated by the clowns and wanted to become one. He approached the honchos there with his humble request only to be turned away as he had a “dark skin tone”. Unwilling to give up, Nair then learnt all the tricks by just watching a clown from Uzbekistan perform and went on to meet Sujith Dilip, the owner of Rambo Circus, who immediately made him an integral part of his troupe. That was the start of a glorious career with no looking back. “Those who rejected me back then, want me to join their troupes now,” said a proud Nair, with a wide grin.
It’s a tough life for circus performers in recent years, concedes Nair, who has been a clown for 17 years. Last year, he wrote letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress Vice- President Rahul Gandhi seeking support in saving the Indian circus. He did not get a reply. “Unlike the film industry, we receive no awards. After all the hard work and risks we endure, there is hardly any recognition. Also there are no circus schools in India. So there is a serious dearth of circus artistes — after we are gone, there will be nobody to take up our roles,” he rued.
However, once Seeti is out of his clown’s attire, he is a different person, spending his free time browsing Facebook and watching news on the television in his tent. Nair, who has had brief stints out of the circus, has dabbled in politics and was also a member of the CPM in Kerala. Somewhat unhappy with what he calls intolerance across the country, Nair said he sympathises with the artistes who have returned state awards. “The politicians who play communal politics should live in the circus for a while. Here there is no religion. I have never seen the artistes fight on communal lines, not even during the 1992 riots. The politicians should learn from us.”
Meanwhile, expressing his frustration over the lack of support, Dilip added how clowns are appreciated and respected abroad. “Unlike in India, circuses there are supported by governments and is considered a good profession. Artistes from circus schools also work in casinos and hotels and are paid handsomely. We lack that recognition in India,” he said.
Given the multiple entertainment options available now and the lack of new artistes alongside the high costs, running a circus is a financial challenge, he adds. During the stay in Mumbai, Dilip said, on an average he incurs a daily cost of Rs. 1.6 lakh. “The decline of the Indian circus began with the banning of children and wild animals in the circus shows. They were our main attractions. We have only seen our audience size reducing since.”
Nair now gets offers from circuses abroad to perform for them and Dilip hopes to get him registered with the International Clown Association, a move that will give him access to join the Clown School in the US.
But there’s a hitch: “An issue with my Aadhar card prevents me from getting a passport. Until that is resolved I cannot take up any foreign offers. Further, unlike other artistes, circus performers do not get an artiste ID card from the Ministry of Culture. They do not recognise us as artistes and this makes it difficult to obtain a visa,” Nair added.
Talking about his stint in films such as Krrish, Luck by Chance and in television shows, Nair remembered actor Mithun Chakraborty’s comment during a tv show, something that will always be with him. “We are not stars. You, the circus people, are the real stars,” Chakraborty had said.