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It’s a Circus out there

Half the stands are empty; the front rows house only a couple of families. Once the most popular form of family entertainment, the 130-year-old Indian circus is staging its last act — with no funds and dwindling audiences, writes Manoj Sharma.
Hindustan Times | By Manoj Sharma
UPDATED ON OCT 21, 2007 01:01 AM IST

The colourful beams of light are rotating to the beats of a live orchestra. There’s live commentary echoing across the stands. The evening show is about to begin. It’s a scene from the Great Royal Circus. But there’s something missing in the spectacular setting: the spectators.

Half the stands are empty; the front rows house only a couple of families. It’s a Sunday. And it’s only the second day since the circus opened in the capital’s Chirag Dilli area in the south.

There is a visible lack of enthusiasm on the faces of the circus staff. “The crowd is better today… for the first day first show, only 200 people had turned up,” says a circus manager.

At another circus playing in the capital, it’s pretty much the same story. Vicky Raj, owner of Amar Circus, says: “More than 70 per cent seats have been going empty. I am losing Rs 30,000 a day in Delhi. I lost a few lakhs in Rajasthan before coming here.”

The 130-year-old Indian circus industry, once the favourite form of entertainment with family and friends, is struggling to survive. In 2002, the Indian Circus Federation had 22 members; today, it has only 14. “We have lost a major chunk of our audiences to films, television, Internet and cricket. Now, the Twenty20 cricket will knock us out,” says KM Dilipnath, co-partner, The Great Bombay Circus and general secretary, the Indian Circus Federation.

People in the industry say the circus lost its sheen after the 1998 ban on the use of animals . “Animals, especially lions and tigers, were a huge hit with children in small towns where there are no zoos. They came to the circus only to see animals,” points out A Rajan, a Kolkata-based circus organiser and general secretary of the Indian Circus Forum.

Getting the right place to stage a circus is another problem. “There should be permanent places for circus camps. As things stand today, the Indian circus will soon be dead… perhaps only Russian circuses will perform here,” says Saji Lal, former owner of Maharaja Circus who now runs a hotel in Chennai.

It’s all about the money

The cost of running a good circus is anything between Rs 80,000 and Rs 1 lakh per day; this includes salaries of 200-300 people, the cost of renting land (Rs 10,000 to 30,000 per day in big cities) and transportation charges. It takes around 40-45 trucks to move a circus from one city to another. Each truck charges around Rs 10,000. Compare that to the price of tickets: Rs 30 to Rs 150.

Most of the business happens during Dussehra, Diwali and Christmas. Circuses have to prepare their tour schedule two years in advance and factors such as exams, rains, off-seasons, all affect their returns. Industry sources say that profit margins are as low as 2 per cent. “Jumbo Circus lost money for four years at a stretch. Finances are a big problem, which is why most circus owners are branching into other businesses,” says Ashok Shankar, Bangalore-based co-partner in Jumbo and Gemini Circus.

The government’s licensing policies are making things tougher. Each time a circus owner puts up a camp anywhere in the country, a no-objection certificate (NOC) has to be sought from a number of departments like water, health, fire, police, electricity, traffic, etc.

“In the UK, a team of officials (from various departments) comes to visit the circus, and upon inspection, a licence is given for a year. This is how it should be here,” says a disgruntled Shankar.

Caught in a time warp

While most circus owners blame their woes on the ban on animals, they refuse to admit that the Indian circus has failed to reinvent itself.

Apart from bringing in glamorous female artistes from Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Tajikistan and Russia and experimenting with costumes and orchestra, not much seems to have changed. A two-hour circus show offers the same old fare: a parade, gymnastics, juggling, acrobatics and flying trapeze acts.

Circuses abroad, on the other hand, have introduced new technologies, sideshows and concepts like the narrative format. “There is this circus in Canada — Cirque du Soleil — that has dance-oriented items. Similarly, Tashkent Circus is very interactive,” says Srihari, a Kerala-based ad professional, whose book on the Indian circus will soon be released.

The blame game

Ask circus-owners why there haven’t been any innovations, and they tell you the same sad story: lack of funds, lack of trained artistes, and the fact that Indian circus audiences are not open to new ideas. “The innovations being introduced in foreign countries will not work here,” says Dilipnath. “Besides, ticket prices will become unaffordable for most audiences.”

Srihari says all of the above are mere

excuses. Circuses in India have to be more professionally managed, he reasons. Period.

Ashok Shankar feels that circus artistes need more professional training. Unlike in countries like Australia, Russia and France, he explains, there are no circus training institutes in India. “We approached the government many times to start training

institutes, but nothing has happened so far.”

Circuses in India follow an in-house process of recruitment, with most new recruits being family members and friends of those who have been working in the circus. They are trained by senior artistes. Over the last decade, the number of artistes has been declining; 80 per cent of the women artistes today are from Nepal. Under child labour laws, circuses are not allowed to take in children under 14. But circus owners maintain that artistes need to be trained young. It’s a Catch-22 situation.

No laughing matter, this

The Indian Circus Federation — that operates out of a house in north-west Delhi — is a divided house today. Sources say that instead of fighting for the cause of the circus, members are locked in a game of one-upmanship. “Members are busy competing with one another to get land for their camps. Some of them do not pay the federation’s nominal membership fee; they don’t even turn up for meetings,” says an industry source.

There is also the Circus Fans Association that has professionals like doctors and lawyers as its members. Ask its president Vipin Nair what the “fans” are doing to help the circus, and he says, “We do not have funds, so we are trying to popularise circuses through word of mouth.”

That’s clearly not good enough. Rajan feels that government intervention is the only way out. “Circuses have been nationalised in Russia and China. Our government should come forward to revive the circus by creating the right infrastructure and instituting awards for circus artistes, just like there are awards for those in sports and films,” he says.

Makes sense. But is anybody listening?

Meanwhile, it’s yet another day at the circus. And it’s business as usual: artistes performing to almost empty galleries, as the colourful beams of light rotate to the beats of a live orchestra.

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