Indian circus companies struggling to survive: ‘Neither recognised nor respected’

Artistes perform at Rambo Circus on Friday. Arul Horizon
Artistes perform at Rambo Circus on Friday. Arul Horizon

A bell goes off exactly at 4.30 pm on a hot Thursday at the Rambo circus, now playing at Sangamwadi in the city.
At least 20 visitors, including children, walk in slowly through the smaller tent as they pose for quick pictures with statues of peacocks, tigers, elephants, rhinoceros, and monkeys.

The Rambo Circus is among the handful of circus companies in India that have survived over the years, says Sujit Dilip, owner of Rambo Circus, who feels that it is high time the government recognise circus and its artistes.
As the first show for the day starts, visitors occupy seats facing the artistes, even as hundreds of circularly arranged seats lie empty around the circus ring.

Brightly dressed enthusiastic artistes, clowns, gymnasts, and shooters, take turns to perform, display high precision balancing and daredevil skills as part of their day's performances.

"These days, we hardly get 400 to 600 visitors for our shows. Even we wish to upgrade the skits and offer high-tech performances to the audience, but that is simply not possible due to severe financial shortage," said Dilip, adding that a total of Rs 1.5 lakh is needed per day to run the circus company.

Equipped with 35 artistes out of a total 120 members, Rambo Circus had recently attempted to get some breather through the UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Programme.

Dilip, also a member of the World Circus Federation, says, "In India, the circus is neither recognised nor are artistes given due respect. Unlike other countries, where the circus is considered under the Ministry of Culture, in India, it continues to be seen as a means of entertainment. There is no common platform where circus companies can voice their concerns."

State governments, too, have offered little support to circus companies, who often face tough times while moving across state lines. Only the Kerala government pays Rs 3,000 as pension to its artistes. "If the Maharashtra government can pay pension to Tamasha artists, why not its circus artistes?" asks Dilip.

But his efforts to reach the UNESCO are falling short, as there is still a lack of clarity about which Indian ministry recognises circus.

Recently, Dilip learned that circus companies come under the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs, but a visit to the ministry office has not yielded any results.

Besides meagre earning from shows, circus company owners feel that the ban on animal performances was the start of the downfall of the Indian Modern Circus, believed to be 138 years old.

Earlier, Rambo Circus owned 26 lions, two tigers and chimpanzees each, along with other animals. Today, the company has just 25 dogs, one horse and a pony. Of these, only 10 dogs perform as the rest are too old to perform.
A handful of good artistes are now available in the remaining 10-15 circus companies in India, and CT Biju is one of them. Hailing from Kerala, Biju needs less than 15 minutes to paint his face and dress up in the pink-florescent baggy attire of the lead clown-cum-host for the evening. "If this trend continues, we will be left with no option but to perform in smaller tents," complains Biju.

While circuses overseas enjoy permanent buildings attached to zoos, where animals return after performances, there are even circus schools to support and train young artistes.

The company owners feel that a similar school is needed where they can scout for new and young talent.

"We travel at least eight times a year at huge cost. This problem can be permanently addressed if permanent buildings can be set up, say, at popular tourist destinations. This will also pull huge crowds," suggests Dilip, who adds that getting a four-acre land to set up a circus has become challenging of late.

Many of the artistes live in deplorable conditions in makeshift tents without any modern living facilities, with some of them even living with their extended families.

But the artistes are simply happy to perform for their audiences, however sparse.

"The circus gets livelier only when there are rounds of claps, whistles and encouragement received in response to the performances," says Dilip, who has been in the business for 25 years.

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