For Rambo circus founder, circus was life

Published on Oct 31, 2022 12:12 AM IST

The year was 1978 and PT Dilip had just dropped in at the office of the Special Superintendent of Police, Nashik district, Rajendra Anandrao Sonawane

Son of a worker in the rubber plantations of Kerala, Dilip (whose original name incidentally was Philip, that over the years somehow became Dilip!) gravitated towards the circus right from his early years. He initially founded the Erina circus and then the Great Oriental circus and the Victoria circus, finally merging all three into the Rambo circus in 1991. (HT Photo)
Son of a worker in the rubber plantations of Kerala, Dilip (whose original name incidentally was Philip, that over the years somehow became Dilip!) gravitated towards the circus right from his early years. He initially founded the Erina circus and then the Great Oriental circus and the Victoria circus, finally merging all three into the Rambo circus in 1991. (HT Photo)
BySunanda Mehta

The year was 1978 and PT Dilip had just dropped in at the office of the Special Superintendent of Police, Nashik district, Rajendra Anandrao Sonawane. Dilip had some permission issues for his fledgling circus business and needed the officer’s advice and support. But before he could begin, he found himself listening to the woes of some farmers from Igatpuri who had come to Sonawane to seek his help. A leopard had wandered into their sugar cane fields and hidden there. Fearing for their lives, the farmers were unable to go into the fields and harvest their crops. In an instant, Dilip, forgetting his own problems, jumped to his feet and said, “Let’s go”.

Sonawane, Dilip and a few cops drove to the edge of the fields, the cops armed with guns. On arrival, before Sonawane could fathom the next move, Dilip had jumped out of the vehicle, taken off his shirt and, holding live firecrackers in both hands, had disappeared into the sugarcane fields. In a few minutes, the villagers and the cops saw the unbelievable sight of the leopard darting out of the fields and sprinting into the forest at the other end of the farmland. “He was a daredevil if there was ever one,” says the now retired former additional director general of police, whose association with Dilip started right from that year and lasted over 45 years, till the founder of the iconic Rambo circus breathed his last on October 27 in Pune.

Yet the reason why Sonawane cherishes his memories with Dilip to date, is not because the latter was a braveheart. It’s because he was all heart. Anyone who knew Dilip even slightly, knew his unbridled generosity and large heartedness that invariably touched the lives of all who came across him. “He could never turn away anyone who came to him. Even if he had nothing or the circus was going through dire times like during Covid, he would reach out and help,” says Sonawane.

Son of a worker in the rubber plantations of Kerala, Dilip (whose original name incidentally was Philip, that over the years somehow became Dilip!) gravitated towards the circus right from his early years. He initially founded the Erina circus and then the Great Oriental circus and the Victoria circus, finally merging all three into the Rambo circus in 1991.

The circus then became his identity and he helmed it both as an owner and head of the family, the latter often overshadowing the former. From pawning all his gold after a cyclone in Vizag ripped apart his tent to rebuild the circus and ensure sustenance for his staff to refusing to charge orphanages and NGOs when they came for the shows to conducting marriages within the circus family at his own expense to looking after every animal till its end, Dilip rose admirably to every occasion as life and work demanded.

And he did so as an inveterate optimist, who believed in turning around every adverse situation. And there were plenty of those. While the circus faced innumerable vicissitudes over its three-decade existence, the most publicised and well-known one was when the government imposed a complete ban on use of animals in circuses all over the country - a move initiated by animal activists and backed by Menaka Gandhi.

Overnight the star attractions of the circus were gone. “We were advised to close shop. It was difficult enough competing with so many new forms of entertainment. Without animals, our stands would be empty it was felt,” recollects Sujit Dilip, son of PT Dilip, who took over the reins of the circus some years ago. But Dilip was indefatigable. “He told me it’s when situations become tough, that we need to use our minds most.”

Characteristically Dilip proceeded to collaborate with circuses in Russia and Uzbekistan and got their artists to train those in Rambo so that their spectacular performances could be the new draw for audiences. In addition, new daredevil acts were added with performers from Africa. Today Rambo circus is not only the first member of the Circus Federation of Monte Carlo with international performances to its credit, it’s also the only circus to perform both in the tent and at the theatre.

Incidentally, throughout the struggle with the ban (the circus had gone to court over the order) Dilip never harboured any rancour towards the other side. He genuinely believed that the ban order had risen from good intentions, but the methodology was wrong.

“I remember after a particularly heated exchange in court with one of the activists we came out to find her struggling to start the car. I was still seething but my father immediately went over, signalled to me to join him and we both pushed the car of the person we had just fought with, till it started. But he was like that.”

What troubled Dilip more than the ban on animals from performing was the order that they would also be taken away from the circus and rehabilitated in zoos. “When our animals were going my father requested that the keepers be taken along as the animals get attached to their keepers. He even offered to continue to pay the keepers’ salaries but the forest department could not agree to that.

All the 26 lions that were taken away from us died in a few months. When it came to giving away the elephants my father refused to give them to the government and instead sent them to the sanctuary at Jamnagar, where they are well looked after.”

Over the years, as Dilip poured himself into ensuring Rambo circus not just survived but marched with the times, what he unfortunately neglected was his health. Advice to slow down or take it easy were met with a smile and a ‘The show must go on’.

And so it did. On the night of October 27, 2022, Rambo circus was performing at the St Andrews auditorium in Mumbai that day. As its founder left this world around 1 pm, the curtains still went up on yet another performance just a few hours later.

For Biju Pushkaran, it was his most difficult performance in his 25 years of being at Rambo. Biju had come to Rambo as a young performer, but one hopelessly addicted to alcohol and hence side-lined by others. It was then that Dilip took him under his wing and worked with him for a year and a half till he gave up the addiction and began to focus on the performer inside him. The turnaround has today taken Biju to the top of his craft, even internationally.

It was thus in tribute to his mentor that on October 28 evening, Biju put on his make-up and walked onto the stage with a broken heart but with the big clown smile drawn across his face. Together with his team of other clowns, he sang the heart rending Jeena yahaan marna yahaan from the film Mera Naam Joker, moving a packed audience, who had just been informed of the death of their founder, to tears. As the song ended, the entire audience stood up applauding the man who had brought them the show. The next day 23,000 people connected online to be a part of Dilip’s last journey in Pune.

“That day I was in a dilemma on whether to hold the show or cancel it. But I knew this was how my father would have wanted to go,” adds Sujit. Indeed, he would have. For life may be a circus to many, to Dilip circus was life.

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