There is music in the air as we walk past a block of tents — the ‘homes’ of artistes at the Great Royal Circus. Javed, 21, is strumming his guitar in his tent. With his chiselled features and coloured tresses, the young guitarist has the look of an aspiring rock star. His father, Mohammad Sayed, 50, the circus band master, is reading a book sitting next to him. Fluent in English, Sayed loves reading. “Javed has been in the circus with me for the last ten years. I want him to seek a life beyond the circus and earn fame as a guitarist. I have been trying to get him a job with a good rock band. Though he has a lot of talent, what he lacks is luck and connections,” he says. “I joined a rock band in Kolkata a few years back, but somehow, it did not work,” says Javed, who now earns Rs 4,000 a month.
As you walk the dusty ‘streets’ of the makeshift ‘circus colony’ behind the colourful canopies, which have dozens of tents and tin-sheds serving as the houses of the circus artistes, you come across several stories of aspirations and frustrations. The difference between the life in the ring and the life behind the canopies around it is stark. Many artistes living in the tents aspire for a life beyond the circus. Apparao, 63, a clown, is one of them. Sitting in his tent, he is getting ready to perform his laughter act at the evening show which will begin in half-an-hour. Putting white paint on his wrinkled face, he tells you, “I have been in the circus for the last 50 years, as an acrobat, a cyclist and then as a clown — the most lasting and stable job in a circus. I get Rs 4,000 a month.” He left the circus in 1991 to start a cycle mechanic’s shop, but as luck would have it, he was back in the circus by 1996. But this time, he says, he will go for good. “You see, my son has become a charted accountant. Finally, I can have a life beyond the circus,” says a proud Apparao.
Md. Afdar, 43 is another clown, but has no regrets about working in the circus, which, he says, has given him everything. “I am a dwarf. I could not have done anything else in life. I earn Rs 5,000 per month. I have been able to marry off my daughter and build a home back in my village,” he says. He works in the circus with his two sons. His only regret is that people have lost interest in the circus and it is becoming increasingly difficult to make them laugh. “I am worried about the future of the circus and the future of my sons. I know that they cannot have a life beyond it,” says Afdar, his swarthy, wrinkled face painted in many hues.
As you walk further, you come across some pretty young girls sashaying around with the confidence of supermodels. And why not? After all, these ‘Russian artists’, as they are called, are the star attraction of the circus — the crowd-pullers in these desperate times when it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract audiences. No wonder then, they have better accommodation and better salaries. The language barrier makes it difficult to strike a conversation with them. Ask them what brings them to the Indian circus and Humora, the girls’ manager from Uzbekistan Circus, tells you in broken English, “We do not bother about money. We are here for training and experience.” She is not willing to talk more as her girls have to get ready to play their part in the Great Indian Circus.
Meanwhile, Apparao and Md Afdar are already headed for the ring.