Its the evening show of the Jumbo Circus at Khadki Grounds in Pune. As Kalam Khan,the clown,begins his next act,a swift movement by an acrobat scares him away. Laughter erupts in the stands. With his dwarfish frame and exaggerated body language,Khan begins a comical altercation with the acrobat but soon leaves the stage in mock hurt. The act symbolises the current situation of the Indian circus industry.
As the Federation Mondiale du Cirque,Monaco,backed by the royal family of Monaco,celebrated the second World Circus Day,on April 16,the 130-year-old Indian circus industry battles extinction. In 2002,the
Indian Circus Federation had 22 members; today,it has only 14.
Dilip Nath Nair,45,who runs the Great Bombay Circus with Sanjeev Balagopalan says that after five years,there will be no circus in India. How do I survive, he asks. Land and transportation costs are up. Sometimes,we have to pay Rs 10,000 – 15,000 per day for the ground even though the best grounds are not given to us. Now,severe laws have crippled us further. We are asking for a little cooperation,not charity, he says.
There are many threats to the survival of the circus. The ban on animal performances by the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act,1960,amended 10 years ago,was a big setback. It was justified but led to a tricky issue caught between animal and human rights. For now,only animals like the elephant,dog,cat and hippopotamus are allowed for certain acts but another amendment proposed by the Animal Welfare Board,Chennai will ban these too.
Space is another concern. In Delhi,we dont always get good grounds,neither in Lucknow,or most other cities. For the last 15 years,the army ground in Secunderabad,traditionally used for circuses,was reserved for polo matches. Recently,it was given to BCCI for Cricket, Nair laments.
Government apathy may be one reason but Sujit Dilip,owner of Rambo Circus,reveals another problem. We are always short of trained artistes. Recently,a foreign circus asked for 200 Indian artistes but we were unable to provide them, he says. After the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986,amended three years ago,children were banned from being trained in circuses. Like in the West,we must train the children as well and educate them, agrees Dilip. An example is the Circus Academy launched in Thalassery,Kerala,in August,last year. It started with nine students trained by experts from the Jumbo and Gemini circuses. But the Academy is still trying to strengthen its organisational base; get more students enrolled and set a curriculum in place. We have a 14-member committee that takes care of the curriculum and other requirements but we are not completely ready, says Gopinath,in-charge of the institute.
Of the 50-odd circuses in India (not everyone is a member of the Federation),only 20 make a small profit. Those who do is because they are bigger,can afford better infrastructure and higher rents. In the last three years,more than four had to wind up business. Karanjeet Singh,28,started managing the Jamuna Circus after his fathers death. Currently in Vizag,the circus has not made any profit for the last 12 years. Nair,also a member of the Indian Circus Federation,admits that the lack of unity in the Circus Federation contributes to overall apathy. We are not aware of the government grants nor are we equipped to fight court battles. Most of us just give in.
To survive,some like Rambo,are reinventing themselves,by highlighting Indian acts like sword balancing. They also use the virtual world e-ticketing for effective marketing. But the circus act is becoming tougher and tragic by the day.