Better off at circus than home
Gagandeep Kaur

The Indian circus is showing a downward trend for some time now. Many proclaim that it is a dying industry. The first and probably the most important reason is the law, which forbids the use of animals. The main reason could be the apathy of public since a circus hardly occupies the mind of a child nowadays.

At an afternoon show, only 25 per cent of the seats were occupied. The price of the tickets was ranging from Rs 50 to Rs 100 for a three-hour show in which about 200 artistes perform live. The price is much less than the ticket price at a multiplex. One wonders if they actually make any money.

"The Indian circus has to be technologically savvy. For how long can we mourn the law forbidding the use of animals, which where no doubt the major draw for a circus. But we have to look forward. We can do much better if we get a ground in the middle of the city. Most of the time, we get the ground outside the city and not many people want to travel that far. There are so many things one can do. I plan to introduce traditional art forms like sword fighting along with modern music to make it more interesting. I am planning to add new techniques to make circus interesting," says Sujit Kumar, owner of the Pune-based Rambo Circus, which is currently performing in Pune itself.

Few Indians

To begin with, very few artistes are actually Indian. Out of 200 artistes, most of them are from Nepal and Bangladesh while some are from Uzbekistan, UK and USA. Some foreign artistes are here as part of the cultural exchange, others to do their internship. "I am basically from Nepal. My parents sent me here through an agent. I was seven to eight years old at the time. I like it here. I am able to send money home. I plan to go back and get married soon," says 22-year old cherubic Prabha, who is a trapeze artiste. With garish lipstick and gaudy clothes, she talks hurriedly before a performance.

Another girl from Nepal is Ruksana. She doesnít know who her parents are. Around 20-year-old Ruksana claims to have been looked after well by the circus management and has no plans to leave it. This is the only home for her. After a certain age, most of the artistes go back to start a family. Some of them do bring their children at the circus. Most of the children donít go to the school, because of the mobile nature of the circus. The skills that they develop while working at a circus are quiet useless outside and offer few job opportunities in the outside world. Most of the time women leave the circus after a certain time while men continue with the circus for a longer period of time.

Men folks generally leave their families in the villages and visit them once a year. Girls who leave the circus generally start a small enterprise. Natasha is one of the artists from Uzbekistan, who is here as part of the cultural exchange. She is here for six months and is going to be here till the end of February. She has attended college to learn circus tricks. "I like India. Earlier I had performed for Gemini Circus in India. The circus here is different from the circus in my country. While in Uzbekistan, circus is not mobile. It performs at one place itself and is owned by the government, here it is mobile and privately owned," she tries to explain haltingly in English.

Rambo Circus does not pay foreign artists. They are paid by the UK-based Zippo Circus, which has collaboration with Rambo Circus. While the foreign artists command a salary of $15 per day, artists from the subcontinent are paid anything from Rs 2,000 to Rs 6,000 per month. Salary is a pittance and it was surprising that artists didnít come across as a disgruntled lot. It might be because for most of them this is the only life they know.

Any circus is incomplete without a clown and so is the case of Rambo circus as well. Saif Ali Khan is an 18-year-old dwarf who performs at the circus. "I had come to see the circus with my uncle some four-years back. I liked it and contacted the management for job opportunities. While outside I was teased about my height, I am accepted here and manage to send some money back home as well. This is my home now and in fact, whenever I visit my home I donít feel like staying for a longer period," says Saif. Most of the artistes go home once a year.

When questioned about the safety aspect of the artistes and whether artistes have any insurance against an accident, Kumar said, "I am their insurance. We live like a family and I try to help them as much as I can. Some time back there was a case of a girl who developed cancer and I paid for her chemotherapy. She has left the circus now."

Explaining the process of recruitment of artistes, Kumar says, "Earlier there were agents and they used to get people for us from Nepal and Bangladesh. However, now some poor families contact us directly and sometimes, the person, usually from a small town, is enthusiastic about joining a circus and comes on his/her own."

The tents where the artistes stay were clean and one of them even had a television. Most of them had a bed and some open space where they kept their things. They also had running water in the toilets. The foreign artistes cook their own food on a stove while the Indian artistes cook together.

Eighteen-year-old US circus artiste, Disa Carneol, trained at the Academy of Circus Arts, feels that in some ways Indian circus is better than its US counterpart. "To perform before about 5,000 audience is a dream of any circus artiste and I regularly do it here. And also, there we moved every week but here we stay at one place for at least a month. Many a times, we sleep in lorries in the US, but here everybody has a bed."

It is certainly a difficult life for a circus artiste but for many of them it is better than life at their homes. Poverty ensures that they are never able to leave circus.