"The glitter is gone, You are witnessing a dying art"
"I’m Hari Gawali, 3 feet tall and I have been making people laugh for the last 27 years'' said the mercurial clown of the Great Bombay Circus, now running at Sarovaram ground in Kozhikode.
Gawali is from a remote village in Bihar and now camping in the city along with his fellow circus artists from various parts of the country. “I wanted to become a school teacher who could provide knowledge to people but I ended up making people laugh," said Gawali wearing a faint smile.
Men and women performers, acrobats and trapeze artists dressed in glittering outfits showcase their high precision balancing skills and other risky acts as part of the day’s performance.
But take a second look and you can't stop noticing the fading ‘glitter’ in the circus tents. Tents with holes, nets hanging loosely from the roof, rusting iron poles are conspicuous to a visitor. Rows of empty chairs in the gallery too don't look inspiring for a circus enthusiast.
Lack of government support and unavailability of good artists, shrinking spectators, stiff competition from Cinema and television reality shows and stringent laws like banning of wild animals have hit the circus industry hard. Gawali and the other 127 employees of the Great Bombay Circus fear the curtain would soon come down on this highly underrated art, leaving them in dire straits.
“Not long ago, the arrival of a circus troupe generated a festival like fervour in small cities and towns in our country. The performers were treated like celebrities and we were given a rousing reception every time we reached a new location” said Tulasidas Chaudhary, the oldest artist in the troupe. He started out his career by mastering adventurous acts such as chair acrobats, spring net, somersault and flying trapeze moves. As age caught up he now performs only during interludes as a joker .
"Glory days are gone for the Indian circus. Today circus is a dying art and the empty chairs that you see here today have become a regular feature"; lamented Albert, an Ethiopian artist in the team.
Albert and his other 9 companions, all in their mid-twenties, were performers in a Turkish circus troupe. The company shut shop when it faced severe financial difficulties and the artists joined the Great Bombay Circus.
When he said that he wished to study more and get a job like school teacher, his African friends sniggered at him. One could wonder that it suggested that receiving education was still a far-fetched dream for those boys in their country.
Some of them have mentioned that getting educated and finding a small job is a luxury. As of now they dream to migrate to European countries and become noted performers
“We wish there were larger audiences. A bigger crowd could inspire us. The applause and cheers could make us forget miseries and improve our performances” said Mandira, the ring performer from Nepal.
The artists now live in a deplorable condition in a makeshift tent. They cook their own food and spend their nights in an unhygienic environment. Gawali says that he has no complaints for his pathetic condition. “I’m used to it. People laugh at me when they see my face. I have painted my face so to conceal my true emotions. No one has ever seen my tears yet...”
The circus started losing its popularity after the 1998 ban on the use of animals, like elephants, lions, and tigers. Those days well-maintined zoos were less, and people especially children, came to the circus to see animals,” claims a spectator.
Unity in diversity is not just a slogan for a circus troupe. The big top (The main tent) is a world of harmony and cohesion. The teamwork is the mantra behind a successful performance on the ring. Offstage, the artists put up in small tents behind, live like family members, without cast or creed to divert their attention.
They just focus on the next show or the upcoming performance, for they know a simple mistake will have unimaginable consequences. The ring will never give a second chance or a second take.
In a fortnight the Great Bombay circus will leave Kozhikode for Chennai and pitch its tents in the metropolitan city.