The storyline of the Bollywood classic Mera Naam Joker seems to be playing out in the real life of thousands of circus artistes across the country as the industry dies a slow death.
In the 1970 movie, directed and produced by Raj Kapoor, the protagonist, a clown named Raju (essayed by Kapoor himself) working with the Gemini Circus, ignores his personal losses and sorrows to make the audience laugh to ensure that the show must go on.
After over five decades of the release of the movie, the entire circus industry seems to be in Raju’s shoes – frantically trying to keep the show going while quietly swallowing their personal miseries.
COVID plays spoilsport
For about a year now, the circus companies have been feeding their troupes stranded in different parts of the country even though they have been unable to stage shows because of the COVID-19 restrictions.
A contingent of the Great Bombay Circus has been stranded in a remote town in Tamil Nadu where they put up their last show on March 22 last year. Similarly, a team of Jumbo Circus is stuck in neighbouring Kerala and a troupe of Ajanta Circus is camped in West Bengal’s Sainthia ever since a nationwide lockdown was announced in the wake of the pandemic last year.
“The other groups are also similarly left high and dry in one place or the other, incurring massive daily expenditure without earning a penny,” said Firoze Sheikh, a Mumbai-based organiser of circus shows.
Depending on the size of a group, a circus company on an average shells out anything between ₹20, 000 and ₹30,000 daily for food, ground rent, electricity, water charges, medical expenses, salaries etc, said Rabi Babu, the owner of Kolkata-based Ajanta Circus.
Struggling to pay and feed their troupes, many circus companies such as Great Bombay Circus (GBC), one of the oldest in the business in India having completed 100 years of journey last year, are trying to raise money through crowdfunding platforms like Milaap and Ketto.
The GBC had gone to perform in Tamil Nadu last year with a contingent of 160 artistes and five horses. Now it’s stranded there with 80 people and the animals.
“Several performers have gone to their native places. Among those who left were eight South African and two Russian nationals who used to perform trapeze and other acrobatic antics,” said Firoze, who had organised the Tamil Nadu show for the GBC.
“There are many people associated with the circus industry who have nowhere else to go. For many of them the profession has been handed down from one generation to another. They spend their entire lives at the fair entertaining people,” he added.
A circus group generally employs 150 to 200 people. An employee earns anything in the range of ₹5,000 to ₹20,000 depending on the role, according to Firoze.
Huge overheads, but no income for over a year, have dealt a body blow to the country’s about 30 remaining circus companies that have been struggling for more than two decades now.
“The death knell was sounded once performances of wild animals such as bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers, and lions were banned in 1998. In 2000, the permission to use captive elephants for the shows too was cancelled. Now only horse riding is allowed,” Firoze said.
He said the no-show in the wake of COVID-19 could be the final nail in the coffin of the circus, at least in India, where the artistry tradition began its journey in 1880 with the establishment of the Great Indian Circus (by Vishnupant Chatre).
At present there are 35 major circus companies operating in the country. The number was more than 300 even a decade ago, Rabi Babu said.
“How could the circus survive when there is hardly any profit in the business these days? Before the ban on use of animals, the circus shows used to be houseful with regular attendance of 500 to 1,000 audiences. These days it is difficult to get even 50 to 100 spectators,” Firoze said.
Unless the government intervenes immediately, the art of circus will not survive long, Babu said, adding that the industry is suffering because it has not been able to collectively raise the voice for the industry.
“Indian Circus Federation (ICF) exists only on paper. It has not been able to even pursue with the government to allow circuses to hold shows maintaining all COVID safety protocols,” Firoze rued.
Several calls made to the ICF office in Delhi went unanswered.
Need for new spectacles, avenues
Failure of Indian circus groups to reinvent themselves to face the new challenges is also responsible for its dwindling popularity, say many associated with the art.
“The circuses need to introduce new spectacles and technology. The same old fashioned acrobatics, trapeze acts, juggling, jumping through fire rings, clowning etc in a two to three hour show may not be enough to keep the audience engaged for two to three hours,” said Mohammad Ali, who used to be a juggler with the Empire Circus.
Aditya Shah, whose family has been in the circus management business for about eight to nine decades, agrees that the Indian circuses need to repackage the contents, improve infrastructure and change the marketing strategy.
He feels that the COVID-19-induced hardship might trigger the change.
Shah along with his friend Suganthan Asokan, an engineer turned digital marketing professional, is already initiating the change, streaming circuses on OTT platforms and social media.
The duo helped the Rambo Circus, founded in 1991, to go digital in September last year with its show ‘Life Is a Circus’. About 21,000 tickets for the show were sold on BookMyShow, giving some ray of hope to the struggling industry.
For the show, breathtaking acrobatic stunts and trapeze acts were shot in the circus arena.
The performances were then presented on the screen with stories of achievements and struggles of artistes who were making the last-ditch attempt to save the cultural heritage integral to childhood memories of several generations of Indians.