Not quite the Big Top, But a Circus Nevertheless

Growing up, the circus was definitely a major event in our lives. Every two or three years, a circus would come to town, and we would be taken to see it. Mothers used this as major leverage as in: ‘study for your tests and get a good score, otherwise no circus’; ‘you keep staying out beyond 6.30, and no circus for you’, etc.

After a gap of about four and a half decades, last week I went to the circus again.

So much had changed. And so much was the same.

What had changed? Well to begin with, the circus was no longer in a tent. That itself was a shock, because down the centuries, at least starting 1825, when Joshuah Purdy first used a large tent for his circus, the circus has been synonymous with the ‘big top’, which symbolized the big round tent in which circuses were staged. The circus I went to was staged in a closed auditorium!

The setting itself obviously gave rise to changes in the acts and the format. There was no longer space for simultaneous acts which added to the melee and the excitement—remember the elephants in the inner ring, as acrobats rode unicycles in the next ring, and clowns ran around hitting each other in the outermost one?

And which really struck awe in us, like the trapeze or the intrepid motorcyclists in the dome of death were not possible in the confined space.

There were two welcome changes.  There were no animal acts. While the central government released a notification in 1998 barring bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers, and lions from being exhibited or trained as performing animals, there were some exceptions made. A more total ban started being imposed in 2013. We also used to see child acrobats in those days, which again was banned around the same time.

Another major difference was the quality of the costumes. Gone the tawdry and shabby clothes. Today the clothes were slick and tastefully designed.

But the core had not changed! The excitement of the children which is the spirit and soul of the circus was intact. They were totally absorbed in whatever went on in the stage, oohing and ahhing at the stunts and tricks. They were glamour-struck with the performers and vying with each other to reach out and touch them. They were laughing at and with the clowns. They were dancing in the aisles with the music. The bottom line is that children don’t change!
And the size of the audience was heartening too. The circus was running in town for 15 days, with three shows per day. The show we went to easily had an audience of about 500. The circus obviously is able to compete quite effectively with more modern means of entertainment.

It gave hope that the circus is alive and well. After all, the circus has pretty old roots in India. Giuseppe Chiarini brought the Royal Italian Circus to India and put up shows for the first time in Bombay in 1879. It is said that the Rajah of Kurduwadi along with his riding master Vishnupant Chatre had gone to see the circus. Chiarini in a conversation told the Rajah that no Indian would be able to put up a circus comparable to his even in a year’s time. Chatre, who did a lot tricks with horses, took up the challenge and succeeded, and the Great Indian Circus was born. Chatre did equestrian performances while his wife was a trapeze artist at the circus. Chatre toured around India with the circus. On these travels, he reached Thalassery (Tellicherry) in Kerala with the circus, where he met Keeleri Kunhikannan a martial arts and gymnastics teacher. Chatre knew that the trend elsewhere in the world was the increasing mix of gymnastic and acrobatic acts in the circus. So he asked Kunhikannan to train acrobats for his circus, which the master began to do in 1888. At the turn of the centry, Kunhikannan opened a full-scale circus school in Chirakkara, a village near Kollam, which gave rise to several great circus performers and entrepreneurs.

And so the show goes on! In fact, a new circus school opened in Pondicherry as recently as 2012. This is run by Kalou Achaia who has trained as a circus artist around the world. The school attracts a large number of students.

A good thought on World Circus Day marked on the third Saturday of every April, to celebrate circus creators, performers, and artists.


PS: Thank you Rambo Circus, for giving the childern a taste of the circus!

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