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The Greatest Show?

The Greatest Show?

On the Indian circus – its past, its present and where it is headed.

Forbes Life magazine(Jan – Mar 2012).


The circus is in town. All over Mangalore, there are black and white posters with sketches of clowns and of girls in hula-hoops.

At the Karavali Exhibition Ground, the big top of the Great Bombay Circus flounces down to sweep the dust. A red barrier is plastered with kitschy, colourful images of performing artistes and animals. In one corner stands a food stall, fronted by faded metal. A dull red circus publicity van drives out as I enter, two hours before the first show begins at 1pm. The ticket counters are open, but only a couple of scruffily dressed youths loiter outside the entrance.

Post-noon, the parking lot starts to fill up, mainly with bikes and bicycles. The spectators on this Sunday afternoon are mostly parents escorting their children, and groups of young men. A live band of keyboards, guitars and drums tunes up, producing a heavy, clanging sound.

Trapeze artistes do their Spiderman-like climb and the show begins, though only a quarter of the seats are occupied. Vendors in grimy shirts mill about with popcorn and soft drinks, disregarding the acts in the ring. An elephant emerges from beyond the curtain and a rustle of excitement flits through the younger members of the audience. Woman performers in short skirts elicit wolf-whistles from the back.

Most acts, though, are neither extraordinary nor thrilling. The elephant listlessly swinging a cricket bat, ragged-looking dogs standing on their legs, the clowns’ contrived jokes, the simple human pyramid evoke only a murmur of appreciation from the audience. Many of the spectators look bored; some walk out before the show ends.


According to Circopedia(.com), an online resource on circuses run by the New York-based Big Apple Circus, the father of the Indian circus was one Vishnupant Chatre. A stablehand for the Raja of Kuruduwadi, in Maharashtra, he was known for his amazing feats of horsemanship. In 1880, inspired by a show of the Great Italian Circus in Bombay, Chatre decided to set up his own circus, which featured him in horseriding acts while his wife performed on the trapeze. This was the first organised circus in India, the Great Indian Circus.

Elderly sources in local circus take up the tale. In 1888, the circus visited Thalassery, Kerala, where Chatre met Keeleri Kunhikannan, a Kalaripayattu teacher. Aware that acrobatic acts were becoming popular in international circuses, Chatre hired Kunhikannan to train acrobats for him. Over the next few years, Kunhikannan trained a number of fine acrobats for Chatre’s circus. Gradually, as circuses grew in popularity and profits, many of these performers branched out to set up their own circuses. And so it happens that most Indian circuses – including Whiteway Circus, Fairy Circus, Great Rayman Circus, Gemini Circus, Great Bombay Circus, Jumbo Circus and the Great Lion Circus – trace their roots to the small town of Thalassery, being founded almost without exception by Kunhikannan’s students.

For close to a century, circuses grew in popularity across India, running to full houses irrespective of the size of the town they played in. The film industry, too, acknowledged the place of the circus in the mass imagination, paying it the ultimate accolade through set-piece films like Mera Naam Joker (1972), Apoorva Sahodaragal (1989), and Shikari (1991), and, as late as 1989, in the television serial Circus.


Ironically, cinema and television were also partly the reason why circus attendances started dwindling in the late 90s. Circuses began bleeding money, and many – including established shows like National, New Grand, Komal, Kamala and Oriental – had to shut down. The trend continues. “I’ve lost around Rs4crores in the last three years,” says KM Sanjeev of Great Bombay Circus. More than once during our conversation, he says, “Our days are numbered”.

A further body-blow came with the 1998 Supreme Court ban on the use of wild animals in circuses. In response to animal rights groups’ protests, circuses had to drop acts by lions, tigers, hippos and other animals – the biggest crowd-pullers – and replace them with elephants, dogs and birds, which weren’t classified as ‘wild’.

To a man, circus-owners lament the impact of the ban. K Surendran of Great Indian Circus says, “Because our livelihoods depended on animals, we had an incentive to take care of them. Now that animals are government property, they are nobody’s problem, and nobody really cares for them.”

Later, without any attempt at humour, Surendran says, “After they took away our animals, we had to depend on the Russians and the Africans”. When foreign performers began coming in on one-year contracts, circuses showcased them prominently on posters and in announcements. Indian artistes typically aren’t seen as enough of an attraction.


Luther Bangert, philosophy major, was conspicuous in the University of Iowa campus – and not only because he was 6’4” and wore a handlebar moustache. His preferred mode of conveyance was a unicycle, his colourful outfits inevitably paired with cowboy boots. But he was no poseur: Bangert was a very good juggler.

While still a student, in 2008, he set up a small amateur circus called Cirque Stupendo, featuring live music, fire breathing, juggling and acrobatics. The quirky show became quite popular in the university town, but Bangert had no wish to continue with the project indefinitely.

“I’d always been fascinated with India,” Bangert told me. So, when he got the opportunity to study at the Swami Vivekananda Institute of Indian Studies in Mysore as a part of the University of Iowa’s study-abroad programme, he grabbed it with both hands. After a brief stopover at the European Juggling Convention in Karlsruhe, Germany, in August 2008, Bangert arrived in Mysore. Besides pursuing his studies, he traveled around Karnataka, made a trip to the Himalayas and learnt the Sitar.

The fascination worked both ways. “If I went into a town(in Karnataka) and juggled, I could instantly talk to 50 people,” the Daily Iowan quotes the local maverick as saying in an article on his experiences.

Soon, though, his study programme in Mysore came to an end and Bangert returned to Iowa, the university and to Cirque Stupendo. But India wouldn’t let go of him so easily and, in September 2010, he succumbed.

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He came back to Mysore to focus solely on learning the Sitar.

“Also in my head,” he says, “was the idea of trying to join a circus, just as a way of experiencing India. I could practice my juggling while traveling across small-town India, besides getting to know people in the circus. I thought it’d be an interesting perspective of Indian society.”

As luck would have it, Great Bombay Circus rolled into Mysore a few months later. Bangert rode a unicycle into the venue and asked if they would like to take him on as a juggler. A thrilled Sanjeev promptly signed on Bangert to stay, perform and travel with them for a few months.

Like the other artistes, Bangert lives in a tarpaulin tent with a plastic sheet as a floor-covering. His tent in Mangalore has a bed, a trunk, a clothesline with his red costume and, almost incongruously, his sitar, all of it lit up by a naked light bulb. He uses the common mess for his meals, as also the shared, hole-in-the-ground toilets.

That’s where the commonality ends, though. “During shows, I – and the Russians and the Americans – get as much attention as would a wild animal or an exotic bird,” says Bangert amusedly. Managements are only too happy to pander to stereotypes: A Russian performer in Jumbo Circus, for instance, is clad in nude colours, while African artistes typically wear leopard-print outfits and perform an ‘African fire dance’ that looks like it was born in the imagination of a 1970s Bollywood choreographer.

But, as foreign artistes, Bangert and his Russian and African colleagues have many more privileges than Indians. They come and go as they please, while Indian artistes can leave the premises only at stipulated times. Indian women have fewer freedoms than the menfolk: They live in a partitioned area of the camp – there is very little intermingling between the two sexes – and can go out on their own only when the circus is about to move.

The protectionism continues all the way into the ring, where the woman artistes – hula-hoopers, cyclists, animal-handlers, acrobats – throw off their robes to reveal their sleeveless, backless tops and short skirts. The spectators expect the artistes to dress like this, shrug owners; possibly because all the women are dressed similarly, they don’t mind it either.


Most artistes come from very poor families, encouraged and pushed by their parents in rural Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, North-Eastern India and Nepal to join a circus and earn money. Few have any education. Over and over again, I hear the same story: “I wasn’t doing well at school and we needed money badly, so here I am.”

As a surrogate parent, there are worse options to the circus. “[It] is an informal orphanage of sorts,” blogs Pascal van Heesch, photographer and former technician with the Cirque du Soleil, who travelled with Apollo Circus for two weeks in 2000 ( “It was [well known] that circuses could offer security/safety, food and companionship.”

Most artistes are ‘spotted’ young by scouts who scour the hinterlands for potential talent. “An aunty came to our house in Assam when I was 16,” says Lovely, a 20-year-old hula-hooper at Jumbo Circus. “She asked me to perform a somersault. I did, and she asked my parents if they would allow me to go with her to join the circus if my salary was sent home to them every month. They agreed. I was home-sick at first but then I made friends.”

For the first two or three years, recruits undergo intensive training in various acts – hula-hoops, trapeze, trick-cycling – under the tutelage of retired-artistes-turned-trainers who travel with the circus. Not all recruits make it to the stage, however: The trainer decides who makes the cut, and when. Those who fail to make the grade end up as animal handlers or in charge of equipment.

Typically, novices perform short, low-risk acts, and graduate to full-fledged acts only a year or two after they first go on stage. Each act spans five to 10 minutes, rarely repeating artistes over the 120-odd minute show.

Despite their assured place in the circus, most Indian artistes seem to believe they are misfits in larger society. Circopedia, for instance, is blunt about the status of Indian circus performers: “Circus performing seems to be perceived as a refuge for society’s leftovers.”

Artistes don clean, shiny clothes for the arena, but life outside the spotlights is far removed from glamour, or even the idyll of Enid Blyton’s circus stories. It is a tough life: living in basic tents, performing three shows a day round the year, moving from one small town to another every few weeks – and only more of the same to look forward to. Big cities are largely off the circus radar now, given the multitude of entertainment options.

Yet, because the circus offers security from abject poverty, most artistes profess a sense of gratitude towards the circus owners. As Seethu, who does balancing acts at Great Bombay Circus put it, “At home, if you fall sick you can’t get two square meals a day. But at the circus, the maalik pays your salary no matter how badly the circus is doing.” Rajiv, the fire swallower at Jumbo Circus, adds, “Maalik even lets me go home once a year.”

As a result, few have a life outside the circus. Seethu, for one, tried leaving the circus to bring up her son in the mainstream, but returned when she found it impossible to find work. Inder, who puts up posters for Great Bombay has spent 30 of his 40 years with the circus: He knows nothing of living in a regular house or looking for employment in the outside world. Ditto with the three-foot tall clown Choudhary who says resignedly, “Look at me – what could I even do besides being a public exhibit, as I am here.”

Not surprisingly, most artistes don’t want their children to follow their professional footsteps. With rare exceptions, most of them prefer to have their children brought up by their parents or other relations in their hometowns far away. And even then, many keep their children in the dark about their profession. Cyclists Sheela and Subhash, for instance, didn’t tell their daughter, who lived with her grandparents, what they did for a living till she was into her teens. “Circus artistes aren’t regarded as respectable,” they explain a trifle unwillingly. “It’s perceived as cheap entertainment.”

Their daughter’s attitude seems to justify the subterfuge: The 16-year-old is far too embarrassed to tell her friends about her parents’ profession and, instead, says they have jobs in another city.

Because the artistes are poor, alienated from mainstream society and completely at the mercy of their maaliks, they are vulnerable to exploitation. In 2004, for instance, the owners of Apollo Circus and Great Roman Circus were arrested for rape; earlier this year, non-bailable warrants were issued against them. Owners to whom I quote these cases maintain that a few miscreants give all circus-owners a bad name. “This is why we segregate women in the circus, and restrict their freedom,” they say wisely.


Having observed circuses closely in India and the US, Bangert notices one important distinction between artistes in the two countries. “Indians don’t join the circus because of an interest in performing,” he says, “that’s why they aren’t motivated to work on or think about their acts. I attend juggling conventions, watch youtube videos to pick up tips and trawl online resources. That just isnt possible for most Indian performers who just join circuses to escape poverty.”

Some of the best circuses in the world, like Cirque du Soleil, vary their acts every day, experimenting with abstract themes, merging acrobatics, gymnastics, choreography and daredevilry and pushing the envelope on performing art. In contrast, the circus in India hasn’t changed much over the past few decades: Whether it’s the acts themselves, the tents, the décor, the posters, the music or production values, all of it has a vintage ’80s feel. Circuses remain low-tech and labour-intensive – most troupes have more than 150 people – and clueless about computerisation or modern sound-light effects. Indeed, one man I strike a conversation with tells me his job is to “change the audio cassettes that provide background music”.

With the spectre of losses never too far away, however, most Indian circuses are reluctant to invest money in anything radical. Great Bombay’s Sanjeev, for one, says he can’t contemplate computerisation, since an employee would cost him Rs20,000 per month in salary – a sum too high-risk for the circus’s precarious finances.


Yet, there are parts of the circus industry that are making efforts to change. Rambo Circus, for instance, hold their shows in an air-conditioned, fireproof tent with a motorised rotating ring. They use computers and fairly sophisticated sound-light effects.

Besides, they have artiste exchange programmes with circuses in Russia, China, Argentina and New Zealand, among others. Unlike other circuses where only foreign artistes come visiting, Indian artistes from Rambo go abroad as well under the aegis of the Indian Government’s culture ministry.

Needless to say, the prospects of foreign travel are a huge incentive for the artistes. Raju, a Rambo Circus juggler scheduled to travel abroad Argentina shortly, says the tour is what he has lived and practiced for. Biju, a clown, and Iqbal, a trapeze artiste, look on indulgently at his excitement: They went to Uzbekistan last year and say they picked up variations, nuances and new ideas that they would have never learnt here.

That said, Rambo is still far from nearing the standards of an international circus. Like other Indian circuses, Rambo still houses its artistes in spartan tents. Like other owners, Sujit worries that the next generation of artistes will be difficult to find.

Moreover, Rambo Circus partner Sujit Dilip admits, the investments in technology haven’t really translated into profits. “The Indian market isn’t ready to pay a premium price for circus tickets. Most people still see us as cheap entertainment,” he says, adding that such change as is inevitable will be slow. But it is undeniable that there are far more cars in the Rambo parking lot than in the others I visit.


The Rambo Circus tent at Hyderabad looks like the entrance to a wedding hall. The front lobby is fully carpeted in red; there isn’t a trace of mud or earth to be seen anywhere in the arena. The snack stall has neatly stacked packs and boxes. The bright red of the outer lobby reflects careful attention to cleanliness.

More than 1,000 people – many more families and children than I’ve seen at other circuses – are queueing up to catch the Saturday evening show. As the show starts, three rows of lights around the ring come to life. A spotlight settles on the first gymnast as the clear notes of a recorded piano piece resound around the big top.

Lights dim as a girl balances five sets of candles, and again when an artiste juggles with fire. Pre-recorded electronic music changes to keep pace with the acts, moving from Pehla Nasha to I’m a Barbie Girl, from soft instrumentals to quick beats. Lights blink furiously in tune to the music.

Some segments are extraordinarily difficult, like the Argentine girls Eveline and Camilla’s act with a silk swing in the air, or the man who lies down upon four sharp knives or the balancing act inside German rings that roll around the arena. Many acts are ordinary, but the attention to lighting, music and choreography redeem them.

At one point, the clowns seek volunteers under the age of 10 for the next act. Within moments, there are some 30 children inside the ring, and a major rush of eager parents, forcing repeated announcements of “Enough, bas. We have enough kids.” It takes a couple of minutes to get the situation under control.

These spontaneous moments, of the hushed applause for the Argentine girl Marissa soaring up on a single trapeze, of people gazing up in rapt attention as trapezes criss-cross above them – all gave a small sign of the possibility that audiences are still enthusiastic, that kids still enjoy circuses, that the Indian circus can perhaps start to change.

There still is very little money in the circus, performers still lead difficult lives, as businesses they are still barely profitable. There still is a long way to go – but these moments are perhaps small steps forward towards hope and change.

[With much thanks to Shrihari Nair(in Kannur), K Surendran(in Muzhappilangad), KM Sanjeev(in Mangalore), Sujit Dilip, Luther Bangert, Varun Shenoy, Rithesh Raghavan and the staff of Jumbo Circus(in Manjeri), Great Bombay Circus(in Mangalore), Rambo Circus(in Hyderabad).]

Author bio for this piece:

Shamanth Rao writes about local culture, travel and technology. Until a few months ago, he lived in Calicut, Kerala, in a house by the sea, leaving it only to crisscross Kerala and travel up and down India’s west coast. One of his journeys took him to Thalassery, the birthplace of Indian circus. That visit, along with nostalgia for circuses enjoyed in childhood, culminated in this story.

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One Comment

  1. very well written and informative. rb.

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