The Great Bombay Circus, one of India’s biggest and oldest, had planned mega celebrations in October to mark its centenary this year. With no shows in the past seven months due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it finds itself walking a tightrope for survival instead.
“We are trying hard to save the circus; in fact, not just us, the pandemic has dealt a body blow to most circuses, which were struggling to stay afloat even before the pandemic,” says KM Sanjeev, co-partner, the Great Bombay Circus.
India’s two dozen big and small circuses (once there were over 300) are struggling in the wake of the deadly pathogen, and have so far survived on donations; some, such as Rambo, have even tried to go digital. “Can you imagine what it is like to feed a family of 150 when your income suddenly falls to zero. I had to sell my property to save the circus. When the lockdown was announced, we never thought the crisis would last so long,” says Raju Pehalwan, who owns Asiad Circus, started it in the late 1980s.
In October every year, his circus pitches tents in Delhi, performing in places such as Dwarka, Rohini, Pitampura, Janakpuri. The circus was in Indore when the lockdown happened, and has remained stuck there while many artistes have since left for their native places.
The Great Bombay Circus was to travel to Delhi where it has been regularly performing in places like Peeragarhi, Rajouri Garden and Karkardooma, in December. It was in Mannargudi in Tamil Nadu when the lockdown happened, and has been stuck there since March.
Sanjeev says it takes almost Rs 1 lakh every day to run the circus, including the salaries of artistes, food, ground rent, electricity and water bills. In the initial months of the lockdown, about 200 workers of the circus, including 134 artistes, survived on donations of rice, dal and vegetables from the locals. In late April, the circus ran a campaign on Milaap, a crowd-funding platform, managing to raise over Rs 53 lakh. “It helped us pay a small part of their (artistes) salaries so that they could take care of their families in different parts of the country. The funds also helped us arrange travel expenses of our foreign artists so that they could go home as they were stuck in India since March,” said Sanjeev.
Most circus artistes earn anything between ₹15,000 to ₹20,000 a month, and spend their entire lives at the fair. For instance, Tulsidas Chaudhry, 54, who plays a clown, has been working at the Great Bombay Circus for the past several years.
“My fellow artistes said that I am old and should go home till things get better and circus restarts. People like me who play such characters (clowns) face only contempt beyond the tents of the circus,” says Chaudhry, who was earning about ₹15,000 a month before the lockdown. He returned to his village in Bihar last month. His circus company, he says, has been generous, giving him half the salary all these months. “It is easier to make people cry than laugh and I want to continue to make people laugh till my last breath. I just hope that I am able to return to the ring soon,” said Chaudhry, who speaks Malayalam, Tamil, Assamese, Bengali and Hindi.
“Most old circus artistes can fluently speak many Indian languages.It is because circus has people from all parts of the country, living together like one big family. We are deeply worried about our future in the post-Covid world.”
While circus owners such as Pehalwan say the decline of the circus started with a ban on animals in 1998, many believe Indian circus has failed to reinvent itself and the Covid crisis will force them to change. A three-hour show offers the same old fare: gymnastics, juggling, acrobatics and flying trapeze acts unlike their foreign counterparts, which have introduced new technologies, sideshows and new concepts such as theatrical, narrative-driven circus. Most circuses abroad rely on human spectacle than animals.
“Circuses in India have been trying to modernise; they have introduced international artistes and new acts. But running the circus at the current size and scale is not sustainable. Circuses will have to be compact with smaller tents, shorter shows and better infrastructure,” said Vipin Nair, a Supreme Court lawyer, who is a member of and legal advisor to the Delhi- based CFS (Circus Fans association).
Delhi is also home to Indian Circus Federation, whose declining membership —from 25 to five in the past five years — reflects the diminishing fortunes of the circus in India.
“This is a traditional industry. The Indian circus needs to reinvent itself both in terms of the content of the show, infrastructure, and also how it markets itself to the new generation. The Covid-19 pandemic has made them open to change,” said Aditya Shah, whose family has been in the circus management business — providing logistics, advertising and finance, serving some of India biggest circus companies for the past 70 years.
“In fact, we are already working with some circuses to modernise interiors and seating and to help them adopt digital marketing, ” he added.
Rambo Circus has taken a digital to route to remain relevant during the pandemic. In August, it worked with an event management company and a production house to shoot trapeze acts, acrobatic stunts inside the circus, also weaving the story of the life, achievements, struggles of the artistes, who rehearsed for three weeks in to make the performances look spectacular on the screen.
In September, the tickets for the virtual Life Is a Circus were sold on BookMyShow. “We managed to sell about 21,000 tickets. The next digital show is in November, ” said Sujit Dilip, the owner of the circus. “But I know that a live circus is the real thing; digital circus can only be a temporary measure to survive. Most of those who bought tickets were young people who had never been to circus. I am sure our digital shows will eventually help bring new audiences to the circus when we reopen.”
Artistes say digital circus is not what excites them.
“As a performing artist, I love and live for the audience applause. I have a feeling circus will not survive beyond five years. Covid-19 has only hastened its death. But unlike me, who have agriculture land and can farm, most do not have anything to fall back on,” said Raju Barde, a 40-year-old flying trapeze artiste who has been in the circus for the past 25 years.
Biju Pushkaran, 51, a famous circus clown, has similar views. “What excites me are the hugs from children in the audience. They take selfies with me. It is this adulation that kept me going all these years.” In fact, it was his video — an appeal for help recorded in April during the lockdown — that led to the outpouring of support for the circus, helping it get donations of over ₹12 lakh on Ketto, a crowd-funding platform.
“We make the world laugh, today I stand before you crying,” said Pushkaran in his video appeal for help. “Jeena yahan marna yahan.”