Mumbaiwale: How India’s circus acts took to the stage

A world-class circus is in town, but did you know it was a Bombay show that kickstarted the Indian circus?

mumbai Updated: Nov 17, 2018 00:08 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,India,Circus in Mumbai
Photo for representation(HT File )

It started with a challenge.

Mumbai residents, of course, were no strangers to public performances. Local troupes performed acrobatics, there were Indian jugglers and magicians. But a series of acts featuring animals, sleight of hand, bells and whistles – that was new.

Sreedharan Champad’s history of the Indian Circus, An Album of Indian Big Tops, narrates how it all unfolded. Chiarini, a horse trainer and equestrian, who’d toured the world with his circus, started every show with a speech he’d soon come to regret. He told his audience that India didn’t have a proper circus and that we’d have to wait quite a few years to develop one. Then he laid down a reward of “one thousand British Indian rupees” and one of his horses to anyone who managed to replicate his daring stage acts within six months.

He hadn’t counted on Vishnupant Chatre being in the audience on Christmas Day. Chatre, a riding master at the stables for the king of Kurundwad (in today’s Kolhapur), had some experience with teaching horses.

And in typically Indian style, Chatre promised he’d put on the same show with his own horses in Kurundwad, in three months, not six. And if he failed, Chatre promised the Italian “ten thousand British Indian rupees and ten horses of the best breed”.

Photo for representation (HT FIle)

By March 20, 1880, well within deadline, Chatre was ready with his circus on the Kurundwad palace grounds. But Chiarini didn’t attend. It turned out he was in Calcutta, having toured there, run out of money and found himself unable to ship his act back to his California headquarters.

No one won that bet.

Chatre renamed his act the Great Indian Circus, but the going was rough. It took months of roping in and training street performers (and his wife) to put on a full-fledged circus show. But finally, on Christmas Day 1880, exactly a year after he took on the challenge, India’s first circus got up and going in Kurundwad.

It toured central India and Bombay (setting up camp at the same spot as Chiarini’s show), heading off to Sri Lanka, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Japan and (some reports say) eventually San Francisco. He eventually merged his circus company with that of his cousin forming the Karlekar Grand Circus.

It must have been a formidable force. One report mentions that it consisted of “twenty five elephants, sixty horses, twelve camels, six Australian kangaroos, three gorillas, six zebras, twenty five Great Dane dogs and six bears. Apart from that the circus had forty cages, five hundred people working among which twenty-five were Europeans and the rest were Chinese, Japanese, Malabari, Telugu, Nepali, Punjabi and Bengalis. Among these people, there were approximately one hundred and fifty Marathis. The one-hundred-foot high tent, which accompanied the circus group, was huge and around ten thousand people could sit inside. All this was transported with a leased thirty-six wagon train.”

Photo for representation (Pratik Chorge/HT File )

The Karlekar Circus lasted until 1935. Looks like the Indians won the challenge after all.

First Published: Nov 17, 2018 00:07 IST