Once upon a time,a 21-year-old man called Yashwantrao Gangaram More lived in Vadgaonpan village of Ahmednagar district,around 130 km from Pune. He belonged to an affluent zamindar family and spent most of his time hunting in the jungle or wandering around the village. One day,he visited Mumbai,then Bombay,to see something called circus,a term completely alien to him. The show was put up by a Russian circus company. After watching the show,a gutsy Yashwantrao walked up to the circus owner and told him that anyone could perform the mediocre acts of his artists. The owner laughed and retorted,If you feel so,why dont you do it.
The owners taunt haunted Yashwantrao on his way back to the village. The next day,he ordered a carpenter to make a large cage overnight,and went off to the jungle for hunting. This time,he took longer than usual to return. To the villagers surprise,he brought a full-grown lioness captured in a net. He put her in the cage made by the carpenter,and ordered him to make more cages of the same size. On the second day of hunting,he returned with a tiger. The third day,he came back with a bear. In little over a month,he collected 25 animals.
Yashwantrao then converted a big chunk of his family land into a shikarkhana,where he trained the animals. He also gathered hundreds of villagers and briefed them about what he saw in Bombay. Soon,he had a team of 150 people willing to join him. Another chunk of land was converted into a talim (gymnasium),where the villagers trained themselves as performing artistes. As many as 100 bullock carts were built using teakwood.
Finally,at the age of 23,in the year 1881,Yashwantrao launched Grand Indian More Circus. He was tall and of strong build,which made him look older than his age. His personality was such that he could tame wild animals with a glare,or so goes the legend, says 48-year-old Mangesh Prataprao More,the fifth generation of the More family.
In 1881 itself,the circus company held its debut show at Vadgaonpan,which attracted people even from neighbouring villages. Soon,the group began performing in other villages and cities too. The sight of the caravan moving from one place to another,according to Mangesh,was spectacular. Some 100 bullock carts and 200 bulls carried ornate cages of lions,tigers and other wild animals. The team of 150 people not only included artistes and animal trainers but also tent-makers,cooks,barbers,tailors and carpenters, says Mangesh. The group would halt after every 20 km. In a small village,they would stay for a week,and in a city,they would halt for 20 days, he says. Three shows were held every day,each attracting 500-600 people,and tickets were priced between 40 paise and Rs 1.80. A five-member band would play music in each show.
Krushnaji Ganpatrao More,now 85,had joined Grand Indian More Circus at the age of 11 as a labour supplier and was gradually elevated to the post of booking manager. Old age has not affected his recollections of the circus group. The show,he says,always began with the introduction of the animals to the audience. One of the most popular acts was the one in which a tiger,with a monkey on his back,stood on a horse. Even the balancing act performed by a goat standing on a football got claps and whistles, he says with a twinkle in his eye.
Krushnaji is joined by 75-year-old Karbhare Rambhau Kashid in the conversation. Kashid worked as a clown and a trapeze artist with the More circus. He says,I was an all-rounder. I even used to walk on a thin wire and act like a drunkard. Even today,people request me to do these acts. They find it amusing. In what is becoming a nostalgia conference about the circus,79-year-old Tukarama Bigachi Kashid chips in,and says,I used to make tents. Ours was a 50-feet-tall,120-feet-wide two-pole tent. Whenever we travelled from one place to another,it took us a week to pack the entire circus material. He adds that the caravan travelled from September to May; the remaining months were utilised in training. Now,all three are farmers.
In 1890,when Yashwantrao started constructing a new house the traditional wada he made sure it had all the signs that it belonged to a circus group owner. It took two decades to construct it,and it was ready by 1910. The wadas parapet has images of animals such as elephants,horses,tigers and lions engraved on it. The house was constructed with teak wood; the woods thickness was such that it would keep the home cool even when it would be hot outside. On the left of the house was a shikarkhana,and on the right was talim and the haathikhana,which housed the elephants.
Today,a new house has come up at the talim,the shikarkhana houses the cattle and the haathikhana is unused. But the wada still has a few remnants of the More circus. In the backyard,a cage once used to keep lions and tigers lies in a dilapidated condition. A little further,one can spot wheels of bullock carts scattered on the ground. Kashinath Anandrao More,25,the sixth generation of the clan,guides us to the store room on the third floor of the wada. He takes out two mini cannons which were used for acts performed by parrots in the circus. Scratching the dust from one of the brass cannons,he proudly shows the manufacturing country and date Made in USA,1901.
So,how did the story of such a grand circus come to an end? At the age of 13,Kashinathrao Yashwantrao More,Yashwantraoson,joined him in running the circus. After Yashwantraos death in 1945,Kashinath was joined by his sons Jayawantrao,Dattajirao and Sampatrao. Between 1960-61,the family wealth was divided. My father,Dattajirao,was keen on us pursuing education. Hence,the circus went to my uncle Sampatrao More, says Bhagwant Dattajirao More,who recently retired as additional director general of police (railways) Maharashtra.
Though Sampatrao ran the circus for the next few years independently,he was finding it difficult to sustain it,due to the popularity of cinema and tamasha,which were taking away the crowds. In 1965,it was sold to a circus group from Kerala for Rs 30,000,which renamed it Sagar Circus. Later,we got to know that it was sold to another circus group in the south,which called it Venus Circus. In 1981,I learnt the news about the same circus catching fire during a performance in Bangalore, says Bhagwant. Thus the Grand Indian More Circus,which began in 1881 and truly lived to its grand name,came to a tragic end in 1981 exactly a century later.
Today,the descendants,who took to agriculture for occupation,have very few physical reminders of their grand past. So,whatever they can find,they carefully preserve. Such as a letter pad with rough edges that carries the date of the foundation of the circus,1881. Or an old,yellowing pamphlet with torn corners which has an image of a man fighting with a tiger. It has the words: Dont miss to see the marvellous performance of 40 well-known actor and actress (sic) and 60 wild and carnivores domestic animals.