Over 400 artistes from Jumbo Circus were entertaining audiences in two Kerala towns separated by 250km - Kottakkal in Malappuram district and Kayamkulam in Alappuzha – when India went into lockdown in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic.
A few weeks later, artistes from northern and north-eastern parts of India went home after the government resumed train services (Shramik trains) to ferry stranded labourers to their home States.
At present, Jumbo Circus provides sustenance to 121 artistes – 60 at Kayamkulam and 61 at Kottakkal – who are forced to cool their heels in make-shift tents. They include six from the African country of Ethiopia.
“We had had a bad season. Crowd turnout was thin even before the lockdown,” said circus manager Raghunath.
With the meagre revenue drying up after lockdown, the company is facing a tough time meeting the artistes' expenses. “NGOs and social workers are helping, but for how long?” asked Raghunath.
Jumbo Circus is based in Kerala's Thalassery, which is known as the cradle of circus. The company is owned by 97-year-old Sankaran. His sons Ajay Shankar and Ashok Sankar run the business now. Sankaran also owns the famous Gemini Circus, which was featured in the iconic movie Mera Naam Joker.
Raghunath has been with the company since 1970.
Cash crunch had hit the company after the ban on using animals and the demonetisation.
It was in 1998 that the exhibition and training of monkeys, tigers, panthers and lions were officially banned in the circus.
Employing children under 18 years was banned in 2011. With elephants banned in 2013, the circus industry plunged into a deeper crisis.
Demonetisation and COVID-19, however, had hit the industry the hardest.
Raghunath, who is with Jumbo Circus since 1970, has seen all the crises.
Various bans, according to him, have killed the soul of the circus.
“We banned them 30 years ago. When elephants too were banned, children stopped coming to watch the circus. What's a circus without kids to watch?” asked 68-year-old Raghunath.
“Countries like Russia still use animals in circuses,” he said.
“Circus was the most popular entertainment show in the 70s. From villages to towns, everyone loved it. Sadly, no attempt is being made to preserve the 150-year-old art form. Earlier, each show drew 1,500-2,000 people to the circus tent. Now we hardly get 300 viewers.
The duration has also been cut short from three hours to two. We have very few artistes compared to the golden years,” he recalled.
Circus in India & Kerala
Circus in India has its roots in Maharashtra when Vishnupant Chatre, known for his horsemanship feats in the royal stables, launched the Great Indian Circus with his wife on the trapeze and himself as the equestrian.
It had gone places and his fame spread across the world.
The history of circus in Kerala dates back to 1888 when Keeleri Kunhikkannan, inspired by Chatre, established the first circus training hall in Kerala, blending acrobatics, gymnastics and martial arts.
Kunhikkannan’s intense training produced many talented artistes who, in their prime, launched their own circus companies.
This made Kerala the cradle of Indian circus at one stage.
During its golden era, the circus saw dominance of women artistes but it faded after a few years, the reasons being exploitation of women, aversion of artistes to take risks and poor recognition.
The only government-funded circus academy, the one in Thalassery in Kerala, had shut down a few years ago after shortage of resources, trainers and funds.
From 300 traditional circus companies that flourished in the country, hardly a handful are surviving because the earnings are not enough to feed all mouths.
“The plight of Indian circus artistes is pathetic,” said Biju Pushkaran, India's popular clown artiste, who works with Mumbai-based Rambo Circus.
Fifty-one-year-old Biju has travelled across the globe, performed at the famous Monte Carlo Circus Festival, hosted shows and trained kids in Mumbai. His joker act has been featured in international media and his life story has inspired an Ashish Vidyarthi-starrer short film ‘Painted’, which earned laurels and praises.
“Our European counterparts are treated with respect. They are entitled for many benefits, such as government-approved identity cards, annual awards and schools to train clowns. Here, we are unorganized and unrecognised. Except Kerala, no other state has a pension scheme for circus artistes,” he said.
Biju said many circus artistes are living injured or paralysed and are taken care of by their spouses. “No one willingly joins the circus these days,” he said.
Going for upgrade
Rambo Circus owner Sujit has seen many changes in the industry since he started to manage the company 25 years ago.
“Earlier, a circus company was like a school. Kids were groomed into great artistes here under the wings of veterans,” said Sujith, who has his roots in Karthikapalli in Kerala's Alappuzha district.
He felt the ban on animals and artistes below 18 years took the sheen out of circus. “Lack of support, recognition or empathy towards the artistes resulted in the circus losing its charm. The number of shows went down as lesser crowds turned up,” he said.
That was when Sujit decided to go for a total upgrade.
He travelled to the Middle East, London, New Zealand, Canada, the US and Russia in search of ideas.
The company was on a revival path when the lockdown was announced. “I had invested all my money in the renovation project; I could hardly meet expenses for a month. I wrote to the government, corporates, NGOs and associations for help. One of them suggested fundraising. A few chipped in with donations – as money and ration kits that lasted another three months.”
That circus and magic shows ceased to be a crowd-puller unlike earlier with the advent of television, internet and reality shows doesn’t mean the end.
Nisha P.R., the author of Jumbos and Jumping Devils: A Social history of Indian Circus, observed, “People love watching acrobatics. The acrobatic shows filled with wonder and adventure are welcomed and very much watched on American TV. Many of us loved watching acrobatics in reality shows, we know how popular D-for Dance was! The circuses in India need timely renovations in structure, style and attitude.”
She feels that the circus will rise from the ashes. “I do believe that they can survive, but probably it’s time to quit the traditional form of circus. The idea of ‘New Circus’ or ‘Contemporary Circus’ is already prevalent in the circus world in many other countries.”
“The COVID-19 situation is probably going to open up new platforms of the circus arena and realms of performance,” she said.
(Vandana Mohandas is an independent journalist based in Kochi)