Trapeze performers flying high, jugglers throwing swords in the air, acrobats jumping through hoops of fire and clowns, dressed to the hilt, hamming it up… artistry under the big top is set for a permanent fadeout with circus owners writing epitaphs for their industry.
With wild animals being banned in 1998, demonetisation in 2016 and the steady inroad of movies and TV shows through satellite television and online platforms, the death knells have been coming for a while. Now, the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 could signal the final finis, say owners.
Struggling to pay their troupes with no audience and no hope of getting them in the ring anytime soon, this could really be the end of the traditional circus, the stuff of childhood memories made of candyfloss, sawdust and the feeling of going wow in wonder and laughing out loud, all at the same time, as the eyes scanned the heights above and the action in the ring below.
How long can we survive? asked a despairing K M Sanjeev, co-owner of Great Bombay Circus, which celebrates 100 years this year.
His troupe has been stuck in the Tamil Nadu town of Mannargudi for the last two months and the overheads are mounting.
The rental, electricity, salaries, food, medical supplies, it all costs about Rs 80,000-90,000 per day. Some local politicians and NGOs have helped us with food and ration, but how long can we survive like this without the government’s support, Sanjeev told Media over the phone.
The camp at Mannargudi houses about 300 people, including 150 artistes, support staff and their families.
From 300 circus companies a few decades ago, barely 10 or 11 survive, the insiders said.
The Great Bombay Circus and other such companies will vanish if the government doesn’t step in, Sanjeev added.
In countries such as the US and Russia, governments are very supportive of such forms of entertainment. But in India you have to go through a lot of channels to get a circus live, to get a lot of permissions.
Though we have been innovating, it is just a matter of time that the industry will vanish if no help comes, he said.
Ashok Shankar, son of M V Shankaran, founder of Gemini Circus and Jumbo Circus, agreed and said the turning point of the industry came with animals being banned.
I think India did it very prematurely. If you look at the countries like the US and Russia, they still have animals.
It has been 30 years and I still don’t understand it. Everything was gong so well and overnight everything changed. That was the biggest thing. With that, money generation started going down, he said, adding that restrictions could have been imposed.
In 1998, the Central government banned bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers, and lions to be used as performing animals. In 2013, elephants were also officially banned from circuses.
Three years later, in November 2016, the government announced the demonetisation exercise. In 2017, business declined further and several companies shut down, including the 65-year-old Gemini Circus.
Remembering the grand days of the past, Shankar said Gemini Circus had hosted the likes of Edwina Mountbatten, Dalai Lama, Jawaharlal Nehru and even Martin Luther King Jr. It was also the circus company in Raj Kapoor’s 70s film Mera Naam Joker .
Nehru recommended the circus to King and asked him to go watch the show. Nehru, who had been all over the world, was so fond of Gemini. It shows that Gemini was at par with circuses all over the world.
From there to here, what a deterioration! the co-partner of Jumbo circus said.
The immediate question, Shankar said, is how to sustain circuses.
Either we wind up now, because after six months there will be no circus anymore. We have to look for contributions. On our own, we can’t manage this. It is impossible, he said.
His father M V Shankaran founded Jumbo Circus in 1977, and there are two branches of it still operating with about 300 artistes and support staff employed. Both the units are based in Kerala, one in Kottakal and the other in Kayamkulam.
Rambo Circus, another major circus company, came into existence in 1991 with a the merger of Great Oriental Circus, The Victoria, and The Arena, is also struggling to stay in business.
We were somehow managing, then this unfortunate crisis came on, said Sujit Dilip, the Mumbai-based owner.
The advent of entertainment at the switch of a button had anyway made things difficult, even in villages, he said.
Earlier, we got good business in villages but now nobody comes to see the circus as there are no animals. Whatever we get is in the cities, that is about 35 per cent of the business we used to get 10 years back, Dilip said.
Dilip was hoping to pull in new audiences with immersive technology but now echoes the pessimism of Sanjeev and Shankar.
We had all the R&D completed and were going to experiment with it in the summer with air conditioning and a full fledged premium show. Unfortunately, this crisis came and we lost a lot of money in R&D also. Due to the coronavirus crisis, everything is lost now.
“We have to survive for five, six months more. We are just asking for government help. Any kind of help they can give… they can take it back from us. Once everything is normal we can repay it, Dilip suggested.
A ticket to watch live action under the big top costs less than going to the movies. Tickets for a show at the Rambo Circus, for instance, goes from from Rs 100-500 in cities and Rs 80-300 in small places.
The Great Bombay Circus and Jumbo Circus price their tickets at between Rs 100-300.
The future is uncertain and bleak. With no signs of an immediate turnaround in their fortunes and the COVID-19 pandemic still to abate, the owners, the artistes and their families are bracing themselves for what might be a final curtain call.