PTI, Aug 17, 2023, 9:47 AM IST
Tears welled up in the eyes of Gangadharan, as he recalled how difficult it had been for him to put on the costume of a clown and walk to the circus ring to entertain the crowd, just a few minutes after receiving a telegram about his father’s death.
”Whatever happens, the show must go on,” said Gangadharan, who was born in a circus tent to parents who were also circus artistes.
Although circuses tend to feature people with dwarfism in the role of clowns, Gangadharan is not a person of short stature. He found recognition for his uncanny ability to pull off comic stunts. Along with his elder brother, Gangadharan soon became a major circus attraction. So much so that he went on to act in films with South Indian actors Mammooty, Kamal Haasan, and Bollywood’s Mithun Chakraborty — a fact he states proudly.
Gangadharan, who is part of the Jumbo Circus that is playing at the famous Putharikandam Ground here, has been in the business for over 35 years, first with Gemini Circus and then with Jumbo. He has become a father figure to all the clowns in the company, having shared in their sorrows and happiness.
The circus industry was built on the blood, sweat and tears of many like Gangadharan, but it also brought them joy, hope and even pride, as circuses were at one time the biggest live spectacles that attracted huge crowds. But now that era is past, and the industry is crumbling.
With no fresh artistes scrambling to join this challenging but entertaining profession, and circuses being constrained by the severe restrictions on the exhibition of animals in addition to a ban on training children in acrobatics, it’s a struggle to capture the interest of the spending public.
”It cannot survive too long. We do not have children training to perform, and the existing artists will retire soon. We have none to learn new tricks and no animals to showcase,” Raveendran, 87, a former trapeze acrobat and trainer who works with Jumbo Circus told PTI.
When he shook hands, they felt as if they were carved out of cold granite stones. After several decades of performing while hanging upside down from a sling and catching acrobats leaping into the air from another trapeze, his hands have become like that.
Even at the age of 87, he stands tall, and has an amazing memory of all that he experienced during his career in the circus.
The ailing industry, which employs people like Raveendran who have dedicated their lives to the circus, is now desperately seeking aid from the government. It needs state support to keep up the hopes and ensure the survival of hundreds of families, especially of those like Kalam Khan in Raveendran’s troupe who are affected by dwarfism.
Ajay Shankar, who owns two of India’s top circus companies, Gemini Circus and Jumbo Circus, which were built by his legendary father ‘Gemini’ M V Shankaran, spoke of the need for government intervention to keep the industry afloat.
”We survived three years of COVID lockdown. I had to keep going as there were more than 200 families depending on the circus,” Ajay Shankar said.
When the markets reopened after a major economic downturn, circus companies too started to attract record crowds. Many of those who had left the circus tents in search of possible other jobs returned to the rings. But what about times when the circus cannot function, asks Ajay Shankar, urging the government to provide the industry with some cash loans during off-season.
”We have to spend Rs 1.5 lakh per day. We can survive the off-season only if we get a good amount in excess of that expenditure (during peak season),” Shankar said. The Kerala government on its part has said that it would consider the demands of the circus industry.
”If they submit a memorandum with regard to their demands to the government, then that would be considered favourably,” Kerala Culture Minister Saji Cheriyan told PTI.
As circus companies fight for their survival, Kerala feels the pain acutely. And at its heart is Thalassery, a northern district in the state known for its circus glory.
Though now seen as nondescript, Thalassery is a former trade hub which later became known for three Cs – Cake, Cricket and Circus, apart from its cuisine. Located in the northern Kerala district of Kannur, it is where the first bakery in India is said to have started, where cricket was first played in India, and where one of the first circus companies was established in the country. Apart from Kerala, West Bengal and Maharashtra also had circus companies around the same time.
Every circus that originated in Kerala has had owners from Thalassery, and all those who work in the industry also usually belong to the heritage city.
”Thalassery had training rings run by Keeleri Kunhikannan (a martial arts trainer and gymnast) much before the launch of circus shows in India,” said Raveendran, who joined the circus at a young age.
The role of Thalassery in the development of the circus industry in India continued and circus companies from Kerala took centre stage when M V Shankaran bought the Vijaya circus company from R V Mamoo of Maharashtra and renamed it Gemini Circus, earning himself the eponym ‘Gemini’ Shankaran.
”At one point, we had 44 elephants, 19 lions, 30 tigers, several bears, leopards, and hippopotami in the Gemini circus. That was why it was so famous,” Ajay Shankar told PTI. In their heyday, circuses in India were much sought after. The tent erected at Putharikandam Grounds here for the ongoing Onam season displays huge photographs of the late circus owner being felicitated by former prime ministers and presidents of India.
”We still get a 50 per cent concession if we book a train to move our circus from one location to another. This was given to us by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It remains the only government help that the industry has received so far,” Ajay Shankar said.
Circus companies like Jumbo are now depending on artists from foreign countries to spark interest among the public. If Russians were the earlier attractions, now African performers are stealing the show. ”They are too expensive. But we have no other option,” he said.
Antony, a circus performer from Tanzania, West Africa to whom PTI spoke, said, ”I have come here on a one-year contract. I do weight lifting, fire dancing, and acrobatics here. I may move to another company next year, or if the present company wants to extend the contract, I will stay.” There are eight West African performers with Jumbo Circus at present.
Ajay Shankar is sceptical about keeping the charm of the circus intact due to the lack of new homegrown artistes.
”We can now recruit people only above 18. At least they should allow us to train willing children who can join us when they become adults. Only great performers can train these children, and if there are no fresh batches, we may not have trainers either,” he said.
Yet, amid the doom and gloom, there seems to be a glimmer of hope.
Indian dancer couple Tanya and Mukesh, who have been with Jumbo circus from a young age — and fell in love and later got married — became the runners-up in the popular television show India’s Got Talent.
They still remember the time they spent with superstar Shahrukh Khan. ”We even participated in the Asia’s Got Talent show,” Mukesh said.
Ajay Shankar said these talents should be recognised at the government level. He is hopeful that this industry will survive for another 30 or so years, as he sees a renewed interest in people watching live entertainment events.