The circus is in town: Nostalgia blends with innovation as art form evolves with time

PTI | New Delhi | Updated: 05-11-2023 12:47 IST | Created: 05-11-2023 12:47 IST
The circus is in town: Nostalgia blends with innovation as art form evolves with time
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The big top, the dust and sparkle and that faint, unmistakable smell of animals just beyond waiting to come on stage are missing but contortionists and clowns are keeping the circus flag flying high – a reminder as it were that the times have changed and so has the art form.

Instead of the expansive fairground is a sanitised auditorium. There's no ringmaster either going round the ring. The sounds are the same though, the oohs and aahs as trapeze artists jump from dizzying heights blending with the laughs at jesters performing tricks on the stage below.

It's the circus alright, without animals jumping through hoops or performing unreal tricks, just a bunch of talented men and women pulling stunts with a mix of comedy in an auditorium packed to the brim.

''After animals were banned from the circus, most circus owners quit the business. But we continued on this path despite the hardships and lack of funds," Sujit Dilip, the owner of Rambo Circus, told PTI.

"During Covid, none of the circuses could survive, but we took the show online and our innovations became an inspiration for others and so many more circuses are coming back,'' he added.

The industry went through unprecedented crises in the last two decades, with the pandemic sounding a death knell for many companies. But Rambo Circus soldiered on, belying the belief that the circus is dead with a grand show featuring acrobats pulling swords out of their mouths and contortionists bending this way and that while balancing open flames.

Despite the absence of elephants on giant balls or lions jumping through hoops, the show has managed to become grander in scale over the years and more global with the participation of international artistes, said Dilip.

While there are about 12 government-registered circuses in the country, more than 30 circuses work independently in different capacities across India, he added.

In Delhi last month and getting ready to perform in Mumbai on Diwali weekend, Rambo Circus has successfully combined nostalgia with new age tricks.

In the near future, the circus company is planning to bring the charm of live animals through advanced holographic imagery, a technique already being used in international circuses.

Rambo Circus was established by Sujit's father PT Dilip in 1991. After a successful run of nearly a decade, it ran into troubled waters as the government banned the use of bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers, and lions for performances in 1998.

In 2013, elephants were also officially banned from circuses.

As innovation was the need of the hour, Rambo Circus first took the show indoors at Prithvi Theatre in 2006 and after nearly 500 auditorium shows across the country, the horizon has expanded for the circus company.

"We try to break all limitations and do new things. We are doing trapeze acts in the theatre. We are trying to put the 'Globe of Death' inside the theatre with an electric motorcycle so there is no smoke. We are also trying to take the 'Wheel of Death' indoors," Dilip said.

The star attraction at Rambo Circus is 'Hair Hanging', a performance where the artiste hangs in the air by her hair and dances in rhythmic movements. Other acts include sword swallowing, teeterboard where acrobats throw each in the air by jumping onto a see-saw like board, Cyr wheel, a trapeze act called 'Cradle', 'Icarian Games', juggling, and walking on stilts.

The challenges are many.

Compared to the times when circuses faced little to no competition from televisions and mobile phones, the industry today lacks open grounds for tents and younger talents to train, said Biju Pushkaran, touted to be India's oldest clown at 52.

"We have been all over the country, a lot of people have heard of circuses but never seen them, mostly because circuses can't find enough space to put up their tents," he said.

Pushkaran, who has mentored a number of artistes in his career, also lamented the inability to take in minors whose bodies can be moulded to train for gymnastics and other circus acts.

"We are not giving opportunities to young artistes because there is an age restriction. For the circus, you have to train somebody from the very childhood. Once they grow up, the body loses its flexibility," he said.

During the Covid lockdown, when the circus industry along with most businesses had come to a halt, Rambo Circus decided to go online with a show that became successful and led to screenings at residential societies and clubhouses.

The situation has also improved financially as the Rambo Circus team has grown to over 300, including 50 artistes, from barely hundred before 2020.

"Earlier, I could not pay Rs 15,000-20,000 to each artiste. Now, I am able to pay them Rs 50,000-70,000, or even Rs 1 lakh sometimes. They get paid extra, extra money is coming in," Dilip said.

By going indoors, circuses have also managed to increase their income through segmented tickets. A ticket for Rambo Circus, for example, sells for a minimum of Rs 350 and goes up to Rs 2,360 for the front row seats.

Young artistes are taking the lead in bringing in innovations in their acts.

Like 23-year-old Sanaban Boynow Meitei, who pulls five naked swords out of his mouth, one after the other.

It was the thrill of the circus and the charm of travelling that attracted Meitei to join his cousin on the road some 12 years ago.

For a few years, he learned various tricks, including gymnastics, bending a metal rod, lying on a bed of swords and then graduated to swallowing sharp metal swords.

"It took me a year to perfect this act. It is a Manipuri talent, nobody else does it in India. Initially, it would hurt my throat badly. I would injure myself learning the trick, now there is no such problem," he said proudly.

Managing to send some monthly income home after keeping some for himself, Meitei wants to continue working in the circus till his age allows it.

In the inexorable march of time, the old is giving way to the new, with, in this case, a high degree of success.

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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