How Rambo Circus Kept a 'Dying Art' and Hope Alive During COVID-19 Pandemic

·8-min read

"I was so anxious and excited the previous night, that I couldn't sleep a wink. It felt like a life-defining moment was ahead of me, and I would finally get back everything I had lost last year," he said. "My kids were thrilled when they heard my circus was reopening. But I only believed it after I saw the paint on my face, and the clown costume on my body," he added.

Rambo Circus, which was forced to close down abruptly last March after a lockdown was announced to curb the coronavirus, reopened in January 2021 on the sector ten ground of Airoli, Mumbai and is currently doing daily shows. It is one of the few circuses in the country that has continued to do business online during the pandemic and opened shows this year. However, the last ten months had been incredibly difficult, and tumultuous for its owner as well as the staff, said Biju.

Keeping Hope Alive

Biju explained that while circus folk generally ignore the outside world and live happily in their cocoons, with Covid-19 spreading rapidly, it was hard for them not to pay attention to the harsh reality.

"Many of the younger staff slipped into depression and suffered from acute anxiety during the period. A call from home or television news about rising COVID-19 cases would move them to tears, " recalled Biju.

"There were also those who considered taking more drastic measures. I had to constantly talk to them, show them the path of reason, make them laugh, remind them of their loved ones at home, who are praying for their wellbeing, and waiting eagerly, every single day, for their calls," he added.

"I tried to do everything I could to help my colleagues. These people are my family, and it is for them that I have evolved from a senior clown to a responsible human being and a leader," said Biju.

Biju claimed that when Rambo circus owner, Sujit Dilip saw that many among his staff had low morale, he instructed Biju to construct a camp and restart rehearsals.

"We began the practice sessions even though we did not know when we would finally get to perform. But the rehearsals helped people get back to normal mood. Everyone understood their responsibility. Of course, we faced hardships, but we faced them together and tried as much as we could to help out others during this time," he added.

Even though the circus was strapped for cash, and the performers were facing an uncertain future, when they went to Dilip with the request for money to buy vegetables and ghee so that they can make meals for hungry migrants, Dilip couldn't refuse. The performers made vegetable biryani and distributed it along with water, masks and sanitizers to the homebound migrants during the lockdown.

"We did our civic duty by helping out in our way. We couldn't continue helping them for long, because we had a cash crunch, but we did our best. We didn't ask those migrants to pose for photos with us. I know how small it made us feel when donors asked to take photos of the donation process with us receiving donations. We didn't want to do that to the migrants," added Biju.

The Responsible Ringmaster

Dilip, the owner of Rambo Circus, survived the last ten months on sheer optimism and hope. His aging father was in-and-out of the hospital several times in the past months, all his gold had to be sold to feed the staff, and he was almost on the verge of losing two properties. However, what he didn't want to do was to abandon his team. Since the lockdown started till Dusshera, Dilip provided accommodation and food to more than 80 staff members. He was already reeling from financial losses that the floods of 2019 had caused, but he bucked up and rallied as hard as he could to accumulate funds.

"We decided to remain united and fight it out. I asked my staff to stay put in Airoli where they were performing before the lockdown happened and made sure that they had everything they needed. We did fundraising, digital shows, and every other possible thing to raise money to keep them safe and healthy. I didn't want them to return home when the pandemic was at its peak and risk catching the virus or infecting their loved ones back home. So, by Dusshera, when things had settled down a little, I paid them, and many went back to visit their families," said Dilip.

"As the circus reopened in January, some returned. Many are still at home and will come later. Performers from other circuses have come and joined us in the meantime. This COVID crisis has taught me many lessons, but the greatest of them all is humility. The way local residents and authorities have come to our help is truly remarkable," he added.

As the show reopens, Dilip – the responsible ringmaster of the entire circus company – is not leaving any stone unturned to ensure his staff and his audience's safety. "We have kept only 300 seats in an area that can accommodate thousands. We are making sure that the audiences maintain all COVID related protocols. If someone enters without masks, we give them masks to ensure the wellbeing of everyone inside. Our staffs undergo temperature checks daily, and by the grace of God no one has fallen ill in last ten months, "he added.

Changing Times

One of the ways Rambo Circus stayed afloat during the pandemic was by doing digital shows in collaboration with Bookmyshow.

"The Rambo Circus' virtual show 'Life Is A Circus' saw over 60,000 people watching it on BookMyShow's online platform in the initial days itself, with a large number of people buying meet and greet experiences as well. We also had several schools reaching out for special shows for Children's Day. The 34 shows thus far have entertained audiences of all age groups across geographies and with this, 'Life Is A Circus' has become one of the highest-selling virtual shows on BookMyShow." said Albert Almeida, COO – Live Entertainment, BookMyShow.

"This unprecedented demand has been very encouraging for the artists, and we are committed to supporting the circus, its artists and keeping the magic alive, both virtually and live on-ground," he added.

Dilip too said that it was a unique experience to go online and reach out to a vast audience. "We learned so much, and could communicate with performers and audiences from across the world," he said. However, he was quick to point out that although it was a good experience, he isn't willing to trading the real experience for the online one anytime soon.

"of course, digital shows are nothing like live shows. During live shows, we can interact and see people smiling and clapping. Lively shows are what keeps our heart beating. Whether the audience come or not, it is a different experience to perform live. Even if we can perform for a single person, it means the world to us," he added.

A Dying Art

In India, the first circus company to tour was the Royal Italian Circus in the late 1800s. Since then, the circus business has seen many glory years when the arrival of the caravan of circus performers, trapeze artists, clowns, and wagons of exotic animals would trigger festivities in towns and villages. However, in the past three decades, things have changed drastically, with several circus companies closing down due to lack of funds and no government support, as well as dwindling audiences and patrons. The Great Bombay Circus, which started more than 100 years ago, has not only witnessed these changing trends but also been affected by them badly.

Currently, The Great Bombay Circus is nothing but a few tents with props and animals, on a school ground in Mannargudi. "Only ten to twelve staffs have stayed back in Mannargudi to take care of the circus's belongings," said the manager of The Great Bombay Circus, Jay Prakash.

"After the lockdown in March, we waited for three months, hoping that things would normalise and we would be able to do shows. We also requested our staff to stay back and paid for their food and lodging. However, as time passed, we realised that things wouldn't get better soon. Therefore, we bought return tickets for all our staff members and sent them back home. We will call them back whenever we restart," added the manager.

However, neither he nor other circus owners across India are sure about the audience's return to the art form. As television, and cinemas opened and took away the audiences, the opera and a few other older art forms have been able to sustain themselves. However, the same cannot be said about the circus.

Transition phase?

Internationally, the art of circus has morphed into a completely different sort of entertainment, with contemporary circuses replacing modern ones (which are still performed in India). One of the key features of the contemporary style of circus is that it doesn't use animals and works with acts done by highly skilled performers.

It is perhaps the only way forward for the circus companies in India to survive, especially with the 1998 ban on the use of animals like lions and tigers in circuses. Since then, several circuses have lost their registration for matters related to cruelty against animals. Only two weeks ago, the Animal Welfare Board cancelled the registration of five circuses due to animal rights violations.

However, staging a contemporary circus show is a mammoth feat. It requires theatres where the circus can be performed (instead of tents) and often involves storytelling instead of individual acts. Of course, high-risk tricks and performances are also included for inspiring awe of the audiences. Still, more than anything, it is a high-value production with an enormous budget, which the circus owners of India hardly have the resources to organise without any sponsor or financial aid.