April 24, 2016 12:25:54 am
It’s 8 am and Ravi Kumar is up and about, rehearsing his act at the Mohali Dussehra grounds. Standing a few metres away from Kumar, inside the giant, worn-out tent of Great Apollo Circus, is circus trainer Vakeel Ustad, who doesn’t seem too impressed with what Kumar and the other artistes are doing. He has a string of instructions for them: “Presentation improve karo… Audience ke mood ka bhi dhyaan rakhna (gauge the mood of the audience as well)….”
Kumar does a quick swish with his hands across his face. “This is the ‘daadhi banana (shaving beard)’ act. It’s tough because my hands are small. It makes people laugh though,” he says.
All of three feet tall, 24-year-old Kumar is the ‘joker’ at the Great Apollo Circus that is on in Mohali until April 24.
Lack of funds and good artistes, shrinking audiences, stiff competition from television reality shows and stringent laws have hit the circus industry hard. Kumar and the 79 other members of this circus realise they have to get their act together — fast.
“Back then, we did dangerous stunts on cycles, ringmasters would tame ferocious lions… We would have grand, colourful shows,” says Fateh Khan, owner of Great Apollo, who is in Mohali with his Kanpur-based troupe after a gap of over two years.
That “colour” is evidently fading. Tents with holes, tattered ropes and nets dangling from the roof, and a messy labyrinth of wires and bamboo poles mark the venue.
A little after 9 am, Kumar makes his way to the make-shift mess for some refreshments. “I have three shows today, 1 pm, 4 pm and 7 pm,” says Kumar, as his brother Monu, 25, who works in the canteen, brings the snacks. Khan joins Kumar too.
“I first went to watch a circus in Agra at the age of 16. Almost instantly I knew this was the place for me. I had been a misfit at most places till then. I wanted to be a cricketer, but with my height, I always knew it was not going to happen,” Kumar says, talking of how he came to be a joker.
His family, including his parents, other siblings and cousins, all stay in Agra.
Adds Khan, “People trouble him (Kumar), tease him. He plays the joker, so he takes it all in his stride. But I am sure it hurts him.”
A little after 10 am, Kumar leaves Khan’s tent to rehearse for “other” performances. “I always play the joker, but I also assist other artistes — picking balls, holding ropes, passing them rods and hoops etc,” says Kumar. The job earns him Rs 8,000 a month.
With two hours to go for the 1 pm show, Kumar begins to get into character. “It takes me about 45 minutes to get ready,” he says. He starts by painting his face and drawing a colourful outline around his eyes and lips. He then slips into his bright yellow-and-red clown costume with a matching frilly hat. “I have six costumes to choose from,” says Kumar, sneaking glances at himself in the mirror before heading out of the tent to meet his trainer Vakeel Ustaad. “Getting the look right is a big part of a joker’s performance,” he smiles.
Apart from his solo stunt in today’s show, Kumar will also perform in the ‘fire breathing’ and hoola-hoop acts. “When the others perform, I will have to whistle, clap and do the daadhi (shaving) stunt,” he says.
A few minutes before the 1 pm show, Khan directs the team to head towards the main ring.
The circus hasn’t drawn much of an audience since it began a little over a month ago. A few young men — “mostly college students who have bunked classes”, says circus manager Shiv Bahadur Singh — come, apart from policemen looking to beat the sun. A ticket costs between Rs 50 and Rs 150, depending on how close you are to the ring.
Forty-five minutes into the show, it’s Kumar’s turn. He begins with a few dance moves and follows it up with whistle tricks and ends with his shaving act. There are a few claps and cheers from the audience, and Kumar walks out, waving.
He returns to the stage a few more times to help the other performers.
As the show ends, Kumar settles down in a chair with a cup of tea and some bread. He has some time to rest before the next show. “Cricket and circus are my only two passions. In the next few months, I hope I find a good girl and get married. It will make my parents very happy,” he says.
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