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Old Tricks in a New World

Love in the ring, a nomadic life... There is, also, separation from beloved animals and the anxiety of a genuine vanishing act. Welcome to the joy and heartbreak of living in a circus

Loud commentary echoes across the ground as a girl in glittering bodysuit has the onlookers standing up in amazement with her antics on the flying trapeze. On the dais below is the white-faced clown who nudges audiences to reciprocate his gullible smile. The suited man with a wand leaves them astonished by converting a silk stole into a pigeon. Their appearances and acts are poles apart, but they belong to the common tribe of circus artistes representative of a craft that, perhaps, has its days numbered.

From circus days in Pompey’s Rome comprising lions, elephants and chariot races to modern day India where it is the trick cyclists, acrobats and foreign counterparts who dominate, the ring play has travelled a long road indeed. Today, there are no more than about 10 big circuses in the country.

Those like the Amar Russian Circus that performed in the Capital recently, have had to make changes aplenty but the old world charm is a trick hard to pull off. “We do not attract as much crowd as we used to, but we manage to break even with the weekend attendance. The desire for survival of the art keeps us going,” says an optimistic Vinod Kumar, manager of Amar Russian Circus.

So with his 350-odd troupe accompanied by elephants, camels, horses and dogs, he travels across the country on an itinerary prepared months in advance to ensure that the required booking—from the performance ground to transport—are taken care of.

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The life is that of a nomad, full of adventures, personally and professionally. So much so that Dilipnath Nair, owner of The Great Bombay Circus says, “We’ll get bored if you put us in one place.” Support coming from his affable joker 60-year-old Tulsi Das, who immediately adds, “It’s only because of circus that I’ve seen almost all of the country.”

Standing three feet and five inches tall, Das may be considered the highest authority when it comes to circus. Affectionately called maamu, he is a veteran pursuing the profession since the age of 11, when he left his village in Bihar “to be part of something grand”. One circus company followed another and so did Bollywood, where he debuted in Mera Naam Joker and went on to do innumerable flicks including the recent Krrish and The Killer. “It’s fun,” he says, adding, “It is not very difficult to get roles once you develop sufficient contacts in the film world.” However, he must add, “Working in movies is intimidating, adds prestige and gives a high, but at the end of the day, circus is family.”

Recruited on contract basis, most artistes may be juggling one circus job for another, but it’s much like leaving behind relatives, only to keep in touch. “Our colleagues relate to us and understand our problems more than anyone else,” says Seetu Rajesh, who even found her beau in the circus ring. The glint in the eyes is still apparent when she reminisces the days at Gemini Circus, where she was intimidated by the much older flying trapeze artist Rajesh, whom she fell in love with as a coy 16-year-old Nepali. She naughtily reveals, “Initially, my family was a bit sceptical, especially because I was very young, but eventually they gave in.”

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Making perfect script for a Bollywood potboiler, love stories in the ring aren’t uncommon since star performers often end up tying the knot. “This isn’t an occupation that many approve of and this way, the relationship is more comfortable as you are aware of the professional compulsions,” says Sheela Jaisingh, who married fellow cyclist Subhash.

Sitting pretty in tents personalised with familiar settings including pictures of family, dressing mirror, make-up kit and a gas stove, the couples are content. Like others, they have learnt to be at ease with the rigorous three-daily-shows schedule, living out of suitcases and having no city to call their own. But the salient misery that still disheartens the circus harbingers is the compulsion of staying away from children. “With no permanent residence, it is only logical to leave them with my in-laws in Kerala for the sake of proper education,” says Seetu, who meets her 11 and seven-year-old sons once a year during the annual paid vacation that lasts a fortnight.

Although she does not repent her decision, she does not want her children to pursue the profession. “I would prefer that they have a nine-to-five job,” she says, adding, “Things aren’t the same for circus anymore. The audience is gradually diminishing.”

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The biggest setback, of course, came with the 2001 Supreme Court ruling that upheld the 1998 central government notification barring bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers and lions from being used in performances. The cute and timid dogs, elephants and horses could never replace the king of the jungle. Says Nair, “Indian circus was popular for its animals and is incomplete without them.”

Ajay Shankar, owner of Jumbo and Gemini Circus, agrees. “The government was extremely unreasonable in asking us to stop these performances. The desirable approach would be to formulate rules that direct us how to maintain the animals and cease ownership if we failed to keep up to the standards.”

Much more than the financial loss, what has been hard to outlive is the trauma of being separated from the animals that had come to be so much a part of their family.

The judgment retained their ownership, but Shankar says, “Eventually it became difficult to maintain the animals and we thereby had to hand them over to the central zoo authority.” His 60 lions, 23 tigers four black panthers and one leopard thus found space in the Jaipur, Tirupati and Bhopal zoos, but he has not seen them since. “I still own them, but have not been permitted to see them despite repeatedly approaching the zoo authorities. They send me back saying I’m not allowed to see them,” he rues.

Meanwhile, the circus had to survive and several modifications were made to compensate the tragic loss. The number of acrobatic acts increased, bikes were introduced and, most importantly, foreign artistes were made the front face of the circus. “Trained in circus schools, these artistes attract a considerable audience with their exotic show,” says Nair, who has called in a seven-member Uzbek troupe to be part of The Great Bombay Circus that is currently stationed at the Capital.

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Primarily comprising trapeze artistes and gymnasts, their admiration is evident with the loud applause they receive vis-à-vis the Indian counterparts. Particularly popular is 19-year-old Valiya’s ring dance and the cube item where the head of the troupe Alksey Topron swiftly moves a bamboo cube in the air. “I like India and the circus here. Things back home are different as we usually don’t have more than three shows a week, but I don’t mind this routine,” says Alksey Topron, who by now speaks fluent Hindi and is an ardent fan of Bollywood icon “Sa Ru Khan”.

What’s striking though, is that despite the interest in Indian culture, there is an obvious distance kept from the Indian colleagues. While Valiya reacts with a cold look when quizzed about the Indian artistes, Nepalese trick cyclist Bunu says, “We aren’t allowed to mingle much with the foreigners.” Seetu, on the other hands, simply feels, “It is a part of cultural exchange and since all get equal leverage the arrangement is perfect.”

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Much like others, what bothers her is not the competition within, but the need for survival.

With not much left to save from the salary which on an average ranges from Rs 2,000 to 10,000 the natural route taken by most is to shift within the trade, either to opt for a physically less challenging act or become an Ustad to teach others. “We try to accommodate as many senior artistes as possible, especially the loyal employees,” says Kumar. Case in point being 56-year-old Nand Lal, who started out as a trapeze swinger in his teenage years and later graduated to becoming a joker in The Great Bombay Circus. “It’s important to move on and for me both the responsibilities are equally challenging,” he says. The joke, he understands, is on him these days.

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The aim again is univocal: to make sure that the show goes on.

First published on: 25-11-2006 at 02:32:51 pm
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