The circus, where clowns cry under a shrinking top

Almost 25 years ago, the Indian circus began dying. As I stepped into the town of  Thalassery on the western Indian sea coast of Kerala a long time ago,  it did not take me long to see how this once thriving capital of Indian circus was gasping for breath.

Keeleri Kunzhikannan

Keeleri Kunzhikannan of Thalassery in Kerala is regarded as the father of Indian circus

The circus in India was a romance recreated with the clash of cymbals, with the laughter of clowns, with the swing of acrobats, with the roar of lions and with the memories of childhood. But this romance was dying, and the circus was hurtling downhill, its big top shrinking beyond recognition. And Thalassery told it all.

Thalassery was the home of Indian circus, because most artists hailed from there.The town was also the home of  Keeleri Kunzhikannan, the father of Indian circus. Born in 1858, he was a gymnast whose fascination for circus began when he visited the Great Indian Circus in northern India in 1888.

In 1901, he opened a school in Kerala’s Chirakkara — where he trained men in gymnastics, and three years later, the state’s first circus, Malabar Grand Circus, pitched its big top.

For almost a hundred years after that, there was no looking back for Kerala’s circus — which became synonymous with Indian circus —  and Thalassery became  just about the only centre in the country which turned out the finest of artists.

A circus artist performs with an elephant at the Rambo Circus on the outskirts of Mumbai in this file photo

A circus artiste performs with an elephant at the Rambo Circus on the outskirts of Mumbai in this file photo

They swung on the trapeze high above the ground, they enslaved the big cats on the ring, they played with fire and they tickled audiences with their clowning. The circus, the Kerala circus. was such a joy to watch.

And there were remarkable innovations, one of them being the Kamala Three Ring Circus — where the most magnificent feats unfolded simultaneously on all three rings. While the lions roared on one, the clowns joked  on another and nubile, young girls displayed amazing tricks on cycles on the third ring.

But the 1990s saw the circus spinning into a decline, and like many other art forms in India, the top started to shrink, and the causes were not difficult to come by.

Television gave one of the hardest knocks to the Indian circus. Nobody really wanted to get into a hot and humid tent to watch acrobatics or animal shows when they could well do that in the cool comfort of their living rooms. A Bombay company did try out an air-conditioned tent, but the cost of electricity proved prohibitive.

And when some of the world’s greatest circus shows from Russia and America (the two countries known for their legendary  troupes) were aired on Indian television, their dazzle and brilliance completely eclipsed Indian performances on the ring.

And not surprisingly so. For, nobody had improved upon or created anything novel after Kunhikannan died in 1939. The tricks and the acts he perfected and taught remained and continued — till it was widely felt that if you had seen the circus once, there  was really  nothing new one could find in a subsequent show. And if you had watched one circus, you had watched them all.

Two other blows came in 2001 and 2011, when the Supreme Court banned most animals acts and child performers. Apart from acrobatics and clowns, a major attraction on the circus ring was animal shows, which were a huge hit in those towns without zoos. The circus was the only place where one could see a tiger or a lion or a chimpanzee or a hippopotamus  When the ring master got them to perform (like lions jumping through a ring of fire or a pretty girl riding a hippo) the crowds went delirious.

Activists have been contending for long that circus animals were sedated or starved to get the best out of them. Often they were beaten or brutalized to instil a sense of obedience. All these were undoubtedly cruel. They were also proved in many cases.

The ban against under-18 performers was also resented by circuses. For, they felt that it was best to train one when one was young. That was the best time to get a body into shape. But the court refused to budge.

Today, circuses are really in a pathetic state, and it is not easy to make a profit, let alone break even, given that each one of them is like an army that needs to be moved from place to place and fed and cared for.

And grounds are hard to come by, and when they are available for a show, the rental is exorbitant.

With poor patronage, the returns are so poor that there are only 30-odd circuses today in India — from the 300 or so in the 1980s and 1990s.

Well, the modern child is so enamoured of television and computer games that it is hardly excited about getting under a tent to watch a trapeze on a death-defying act high above the ground or a girl in a bright costume spinning atop a galloping horse or a man being shot out of a cannon or  motorcycle-riders criss-cross inside a see-through globe.

This tragic decline in popular interest and of circus as an art form can be seen best on the faces of clowns, who hide behind their painted laughter a sorrow that is heart-rending. They know of no other life, but one under the tent, and when it begins to collapse, their hearts sink.

If the Indian circus has to get its top ballooning again,  feats that have grown clichéd with time need to be reworked and repackaged. And  Thalassery may  regain its lost glory. Once again, for all you know.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.

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