Asiad Circus a dying act, artistes on a tightrope
It is 6pm and darkness is descending fast. Krishna and Sabina Jadhav’s house—a makeshift tent — is dimly lit by an LED bulb. Inside, there is a bed, a television set, two tables with a gas stove, a few utensils. There is a pink mirror on the wall and an assortment of cosmetics on top of a cooler below. On a chair rests a big Teddy Bear. The tent is inside Asiad Circus -- one of India’s few surviving major travelling circuses -- which is currently in town, holding three shows every day in DDA ground in east Delhi’s Shastri Park.
Sabina has just returned from the ring after performing a roller balance act, and reminds her husband he has to go in for his flying trapeze act in 15 minutes. “I was born and brought up in a circus, met my wife here. But I do not know how long we can go on working here. I am worried about the future of my wife and child,” says Krishna, who earns Rs 18000 a month. “Both of us are illiterate, I do not think we will get this salary outside.”
The couple’s three-year-old daughter lives with Sabina’s mother in Darjeeling. “I do not want her to be brought up in a circus. This Teddy Bear is her birthday gift,” says Sabina in her soft, low voice, her lips wearing bold pink lipstick, her eyes a thick layer of kohl. “I do not like working in a circus anymore; audiences are not well-behaved, at times they pass lewd comments,” she says.
“Besides, I do not think circus has a future.”
Her fears are not unfounded. The Indian circus today is struggling to stay afloat. In the past few years many major circuses -- including Gemini Circus, Royal Circus, Rajkamal Circus and Oriental Circus --- have closed down The Asiad is among a few major surviving one, but finding it hard to run the show.
The owner, Raju Pehlawan says running the circus is increasingly becoming a financially unviable proposition. “It takes about Rs 80,000 to Rs 1 lakh a day to run a circus. These days our occupancy is hardly 20 per cent, and the tickets are priced between Rs 80 and Rs 240. It is hard to recover money, let alone making any profits,” says Pehalwan, sitting inside his tent, which is much bigger than that of others. It has sofas for his guests, a TV, a large bed and an almirah. “I have spent all my life in tents like these,” says Pehalwan, who hails from Kanpur where his family lives. He is among the few circus owners from north India, in an industry which is dominated by Kerala.
“I am only running the circus for 175 people I employ. Many of them have been working with me since the very beginning and have nowhere to go. But I think no matter how hard I try, I would not be able to sustain it for long,” says Pehalwan, who started the circus in the late 1980s. “Just go to the ring and see the occupancy, almost all the seats are empty.”
There are only about 200 people listlessly watching the evening show, though the circus has a seating capacity of 2000. Pehalwan blames it on a 1998 ban on use of animals in circuses. “Parents came to circus with their children to see animals, which were the biggest draw. I feel the government should have allowed animals under stricter guidelines,” says Pehalwan.
While circus owners like Pehalwan blames their woes on the ban on animals, an industry insider says that Indian circus has failed to reinvent itself. A three-hour circus show offers the same old fare: gymnastics, juggling, acrobatics and flying trapeze acts, he says. “The Indian circus can learn from their foreign counterparts, which have introduced new technologies, sideshows and new concepts such as theatrical, narrative-driven circus. Many of them rely more on human spectacle,” he says.
During the last decade, the number of Indian artistes working in a circus has seen a constant decline -- now 50 per cent of the artistes in circuses are foreigners. In fact, circuses in India have followed an in-house process of recruitment, with most new recruits being the family members and friends of those who have been working in shows for years. They are trained by senior artistes. “Earlier, most Indian artistes, especially girls, came from Kerala. Now most of them are from the Northeast or Jharkhand. Circuses will have no Indian artistes after a few years,” says Prem Singh Rathore, 78, who has served as manager at some of India’s biggest circuses.
Now, Indian circuses are a big draw for artistes from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Mangolia and some African nations such as Kenya.
Most circus artistes in India earn anything between Rs 15000 to Rs 40000 a month with the motorcycle riders in the Globe of Death being the highest paid.
“We earn about Rs 25,000 a month here, which was not possible in our country,” says Davis Mwakalu Nyale, sitting with a group of fellow gymnasts inside their tent which has half a dozen cots. “There are no circuses in Kenya, where we performed gymnastics in hotels. There was not much money,” says Nyale, pressing his nose to keep off foul smell emanating from the loo behind their tent.
Mahendra Kapoor, 30, who like Jadhav, was also born in a circus, is part of a team of eight boys and four girls which performs the flying trapeze — the most popular and the concluding act in a circus. “It is very difficult act. Your mind should not waver even for a second. But unfortunately, not many people clap these days, they are indifferent,” says Kapoor.
Like Jadhav, he also met his wife in a circus. “I am from Mathura and my wife is from Chennai. A circus is the most secular and liberal space. There are no barriers of caste, language, region or religion,” Kapoor says proudly.
Most of these circus artistes, who face a bleak future, find it hard to imagine a life outside circus. “I am so used to living in circus tents that I struggle to sleep in a concrete house. Once a circus artiste, always a circus artiste,” says Krishna.
Mehas Ram, 32, a clown, says that outside the circus dwarfs like him find no acceptability and livelihood.
“There is nothing but contempt awaiting us outside. I am most happy when I act silly and people laugh aloud. But these days people are very cynical, it is so much harder to make them laugh,” he says.
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