When it’s show time at Rambo Circus, which has presently pitched its tent at the Bandra Reclamation grounds, bright lights bathe the colourfully clad artistes as they perform gracefully for the audience.
It’s hard to tell Rambo’s Indian circus artistes apart from the mélange of foreign performers – from Argentina, USA, Ethiopia and Nepal, who have come together for the International Circus Festival.
But when the lights go dim and the artistes retreat to their sleeping quarters, the different worlds of the Indian and foreign circus artistes come in focus. In the newer and larger tents meant for the foreign performers, juggler David Bernbaum, 31, sat brewing exotic Chinese tea that he collected during his stint with a Beijing circus and unwinds with his copy of the Ramayana.
His partner, Louis Kammerer, 28, a slack wire artiste, untangled the bungee cords they will use for their act set to the tunes of the Om Shanti Om track from Shah Rukh Khan’s hit film. The American duo learned circus arts at the National School of Circus, Canada.
In the nearby tent was another American, David Marshal Jones, 31, who gave up being a chef to perform the double trapeze act with former teacher and wife, Blaze Rose Birge, 35. Their three-year-old daughter, JC, who travels with them, sat playing with a doll. “We want her world to be as large as possible and hope that she learns lots of different cultures, languages,” said Birge, who wants JC to learn Indian dance and would be love it if JC grew up to join a circus troupe.
In sharp contrast, Biju Pushkaran, 40, the lead clown at Rambo, would never want his children to join the circus. “I delete all the pictures of me in clown makeup before I go home to Kerala, where my children live. I would never want them to find out what I do for a living,” said Pushkaran, who was featured in the annual calendar of Cirque Du Soliel, one of the most prestigious circuses in the world.
Indians left behind
While the foreign performers said that the circus was a liberating art for them, for most Indian circus artistes, this profession is not one of choice but compulsion. There’s a discrepancy in payments too. Sujit Dilip, owner on Rambo Circus said, the foreign artistes are paid more as they also conduct trainings.
Pushkaran took to clowning while working as a labourer at a circus, Baby Kesari, 43, the lead gymnast and trainer at the circus, joined it because no one else helped her at her “most vulnerable” hour. “I was six when my father died. At that time the circus took my sister and me and fed us,” said Kesari, who was trained at MPR circus in West Bengal before joining Rambo Circus 27 years ago.
Kesari is proud that she was able to educate her two daughters so that the outside world is open to them. “When you’re in a circus, your life is restricted to these tents. Though we have travelled to so many cities, it’s the same to us because we barely get to leave the tents,” she said.
She hopes that her children will join the “shooting” line that commands more respect and money. “The Indian culture looks down upon circuses. Even in TV shows, when there is chaos, someone says “stop this circus” in a derogatory manner, which really hurts us,” she said.
On the contrary, Jones said that when he tells someone that he is a circus artiste in Europe, he is looked upon with respect.
For Jones and Bernbaum, being circus artistes is a liberating experience. “The circus life lets us travel the world, learn local languages and cultures,” said Bernbaum, who speaks and writes Mandarin and did a stint as a stand up comedian in Taiwan before coming to India.
Despite the backstage differences, they share a common passion to entertain. They’re addicted to the applause. “It’s not about the money. The excitement of children, who love our performances and consider us heroes make it worth it” said Pushkaran.