Armed with a degree in law, Sarwat Naqvi stepped out from behind the cloak of invisibility he and his Shia Mulsim minority community in Chhattisgarh suffered from to lobby and advocate for the protection and advancement of human rights in marginalized communities. His video, ‘Homosexuals Seek an Identity’, on gay and lesbians in his community compelled members to form a…
Future of the Great Indian Circus looks Bleak
The tent is pitched. It is fenced in by colorful hand-painted hoardings featuring an artist’s approximation of a world of exotic wonder and desire - Amazonian woman, ample bodied and jaguar-eyed , contorting around themselves suspended in the dark blue matter of space while fending off the advances of ferocious wild cats and leviathans from the deepest darkest jungles. Over 100,000 bulbs light up the grounds. A marching band plays its tune. A group of elephants make a little parade. A dwarf with face painted in the colors of a clown walks out the gate with a bullhorn in hand. He points it into the busy street outside, gathers his breath and yells out with all the noise he has inside of him. “The Circus is In Town.”
“I know of a time, ten years ago, when the excitement of a circus coming to town would have been a fever passing through the crowd,” says Sarwat Naqvi, Community Correspondent from Raipur, Chhattisgarh. “Not only the children but everyone, everywhere would be seized by frenzy. These days they don’t even look twice. The time of the Great Indian Circus has certainly passed. It is a mere shadow of what it used to be. Between the melancholy nostalgia for the good old times and the sadness of witnessing its decline in the present day, attending a circus puts me in a sort of chronic depression for a few days.”
In the summer of last year, the Ajanta Circus, one of the India’s oldest and biggest circuses had set up tent in his hometown of Raipur. They had arrived after a gap of more than a few years and Sarwat decided to take his wife and children for an evening performance.
The massive tent was echoing in its emptiness. The wild animals advertised so ferociously on the poster were nowhere to be seen. The courts had banned the travelling circuses from using the animals. The wild cats had been rehabilitated into zoos and sanctuaries. Only elephants, dogs, cockatoos and macaws made an appearance. There were clowns and acrobats. The Mongolian, Russian and Kenyan performers added a dash of the exotic but overall it was a ramshackle dispiriting affair that left him with a heavy heart. He faced a father’s dilemma of translating to his own children, across a generation gap of TV and internet and multiplexes, the simple joys of his own childhood.
The next week, he went back to visit to the circus to meet the Manager and some of the performers. He realized that the great Indian circus, an institution that has thrived for over two centuries was at its lowest point yet, and sliding gently downhill with the rock bottom very much in sight.
The circus costs over half a lakh of rupees a day and that includes the food and daily expenses. To set up a tent costs over 6 lakhs rupees. They were under pressure from the animal rights and human rights groups. They were being accused for harassing the animals and kidnapping children to recruit in their circus. The land they needed to pitch their tents in was increasingly becoming hard to find. Foreign Circuses were coming into the country and stealing their thunder. Indian acrobats were hard to come by. Tickets remain unsold. Seats are empty.
The circuses have tried to adapt. When the animals were taken away and the foreign circuses moved in, they recruited foreign acrobats at high pay. They have added new acts. They play new and popular music. Ajanta Circus even opened a facebook page. But the thrill, Sarwat says, is gone.
Sarwat speaks of the hopeless situation some of the performers find themselves in. Some states like Kerala have unions and there are pensions and benefits. But mostly these artists who have dedicated their lives to the craft and tradition have been ignored.
The public doesn’t seem to care, nor does the government. How long the show will go on is anybody’s guess.
When Sarwat interviewed one of the performers and asked him about his future, he quoted the lyrics of the famous song from the great Bollywood tragedy ‘Mera Naam Joker’. The one where the lead actor plays a tragic clown who clutches a cardboard heart in his hands and serenades the audience to the world weary tune of “Jeena Yahaan, Marna Yahaan, Iske Sivaa Jaana Kahan” (To Live here, to Die here, Where Else Will I go).
Mera Naam Joker - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qNTPsbverXw
The Indian Circus - http://www.circopedia.org/index.php/The_Indian_Circus
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