Circus was a much-awaited event every year in the industrial town of Kanpur, northern India, about 25 years back. The daring acrobatics, never-ending juggling sequences, joker act and, of course, the lion and animal acts were a part of the imagination of most of the kids of my generation.
It all seems like a different world altogether as I stand outside a dilapidated, worn-down tent-like structure on a terribly dusty ground in Noida, on the outskirts of the capital city of New Delhi, this November. While I wait for the manager of Apollo Circus I see an old couple entering the circus with a kid of not more than five years old. The latter is, however, busy playing games on a mobile phone.“Having experienced the magic of circus as a young kid, I thought my grandkid should also see the circus. I am not so sure now,” says Satpal Singh, a 70-year-old retired professional, as he gazes around.
The old, faded red, plastic chairs and dusty, worn out and faded but still shiny artists’ costumes have clearly seen better days.No more than a quarter of the seats are occupied in this 1,000-capacity structure. Informal conversations with the guard and circus artists reveal that the situation is no different on weekends as well.
Nevertheless, three shows are performed everyday at 1 pm, 4 pm and 7 pm. Tickets cost Rs 100, Rs 150 and Rs 250.Circus in India is a dying art form. Until a few years ago, there were about 50 circuses touring the country but this number has now come down to fewer than 10. Most of the circuses, such as Asian, Gemini, Metro and others, have closed down.
Dependent on benevolence, not profitThe ones that are surviving seem to be doing so because of their owners’ benevolence, rather than because they generate profits.“It is extremely difficult to generate profit from a circus now. The daily expense of running a circus is around Rs 60,000 (£606) **to Rs 70,000 (£707). We have around 125 employees. The biggest expense is that we have churn out Rs 12,000 per day for using the land. Besides, we have to get seven to eight “no objection” certificates [government clearances] to perform in any state. Then we also have to put advertisements in local media to inform the public that the circus in now performing in their city,” says YS Siddiqui, manager at Apollo Circus.
While I was having a discussion with the manager, I saw a young couple struggling to find a toilet in the compound. They were also carrying a bottle of mineral water and a packet of chips, which they had bought just before arriving for a three-hour show. While one member used the toilet, the other stood outside.
Compared with the three entry prices at the circus, a ticket at a decent air-conditioned cinema in Delhi costs around Rs 150-Rs 200 and would also boast excellent amenities such as purified water, food and separate toilets for men and women. It is easy to see why circuses are losing customers.
Circus owners and professionals believe that the main reason for the sorry state of the Indian circus is the fact that they can no longer conduct acts with animals, which had been the main draw. Some years ago, the Supreme Court banned five species of wild animals – tigers, leopards, lions, bears and monkeys – from taking part in circus acts.
“The main attraction of the circus earlier was animals but this is no longer the case. The Wildlife Act ensures that circus owners can no longer conduct any act with animals,” says Siddiqui.
Most of the acts performed by today are old and jaded. Indian circuses are crying out for innovation and unless and until they bite this bullet their survival will be difficult. It would not be wrong to say that the signs of imminent death are all around.
What is really appalling is the pathetic condition of the circus artists. As you enter the circus compound, you can see small tents alongside of the main performance tent. This is where the artists live. From a distance I can see a man in his late 40s forced to take a bath outside his worn-out tent dressed in the bare minimum. The inside of the tent is visible and you can see a folding bed, two or three boxes and nothing much else. Most of these tents are worn out and tattered, reflecting the sorry state of the circus in general.
It is hard to believe that at one time it was seen as part of Indian national heritage and even state guests were taken to the circus. Clearly, the golden days are over.
Unlike other countries, circus in India is mobile and continuously moves from one city to another. A lack of job opportunities forces the circus artists to continue working despite low wages and pathetic living conditions.
“I am from Manipur and when the circus visited a nearby town I was totally smitten by it. When I told my parents that I wanted to join, they were more relieved than worried. It meant a mouth less to feed. I joined about four years back. I am saving a little money every month so that I am able to try my luck in the movies and reality shows. But at the same time I am aware that if it doesn’t work there then I don’t have much choice but to come back to the circus,” says 21-year-old Smita.
Trying to bring change
The story is no different for other artists. Faced with an uncertain future, they are thinking of ways and means to best use their skills. Circus artists mostly tend to marry among themselves. Because of the constant touring, they find it difficult to have any social or family life. Most of them visit home once a year for a month or so. Usually grandparents bring up their children while the parents work at the circus.
Some circuses are trying to change. Pune-based Rambo Circus, for instance, was mentioned more than once by various artists at Apollo Circus as one that has introduced a number of innovations. Despite repeated efforts, I was unable to talk at length with Apollo’s management.
“We have to stop complaining about animals not being allowed. We need to go beyond that and introduce innovations. We have tried to introduce some things such as exchange programmes with other countries like Uzbekistan to bring in innovation in the way we do things,” says Sujit Kumar, owner of Rambo Circus in a short telephone conversation. Rambo Circus’s ticket prices – from Rs 100 to Rs 500 – are much more than Apollo’s.
Rambo Circus is the only Indian member of the World Circus Federation at Monte Carlo, Monaco. The shooting of various films such as Luck By Chance, Mujse Dosti Karoge and Comedy Circus is carried out at Rambo Circus.
It has thus managed to find a niche in the Indian entertainment industry.Rambo proves that all is not lost for the Indian circus industry, but the onus is on them to introduce innovations to better adapt to the changing times and to leverage the opportunities in the entertainment industry.