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A relic of the past

The Circus:

A Relic of the Past

The circus was a source of wholesome entertainment in the 1960s and 1970s in India. The elephants playing ball, the cute dogs zipping around in toy cars, the dare devil motorcyclist in the oval cage, the spunky trapeze artists, the gymnasts on horses, the juggler and the clown were all fascinating. But slowly, the circus went into decline and today has become a ragged relic of the past. Meenakshi Sahastrabudhe analyses the reasons for the decline.  

I distinctly remember how as a child I used to love going to a circus. The arrival of the circus was preceded by posters advertising the circus and when the circus arrived, huge swathes of light would beam across the city to announce its arrival. Amidst great excitement, the planning would begin, the arrangements made to watch the circus. Like a film, the circus then, had as many as three shows, but the Sunday evening show was considered the best. So, efforts were made to get tickets to this show. Not an easy task as the entire city was also doing exactly the same thing. If we were lucky, the nuns in our convent school would plan to take the entire school for the circus. The day before our visit, I would spend a sleepless night, imagining the acts we would see. The magnificent lions jumping hoops and the gentle elephants playing ball or the cute dogs driving around the stage in toy cars or a petite young girl riding on a horse were a source of amazement for us. The trapeze artists with their dare devilry, the motorcyclist in an oval cage, the cyclists and their stunts, the juggler and the clown, all fascinated me. During one school visit, we had even been allowed to see the tents of the circus artists and the cages of the animals who performed along with the trainers. My Dad was an army man, so we managed to see the circus in various cities, be it Jabalpur or Jaipur or Gauhati.  Those were the days my friends, we thought they’d never end.

But as I grew up, I began to register things that an excited child could not perceive. Every time I went to a circus, I thought the circus animals looked a little more ragged and worn out. The dogs and the elephants actually looked sad. Even the artists, looked tired and malnourished under the make-up and paint. That was, of course, true for the smaller circus names. Circuses like Gemini circus, The Great Bombay Circus or The Great Royal circus seemed to have an army of healthy circus animals as well as artists. When I became a mother, I decided to take my children to the circus, hoping to share with them my childhood excitement but I was in for a major disappointment. The circus looked like an old matinée film, everything looked old and worn out. The animals looked like they were not being fed or cared for and the young artists looked despondent with ribs jutting out of their small wiry frames. The audience was a straggly bunch, dominated by the riff raff of the city. The smell of unwashed bodies and smoke from hand rolled ‘biri’ pervaded the atmosphere. My young children didn’t say anything, but their eyes seem to say, ‘is this your idea of a glorious adventure’. The year was 1998. After that day, I never visited a circus again.

Circus, in today’s day and age has become a relic of the past. It was a great means of entertainment, when there was no internet and when there was a Television set only in a few households. But today things are different. For one, in India, the amendment to the Wildlife Act has banned use of wild animals in a circus. Rightly so, I guess as the magnificent animals of the wild were being forced into an unnatural captivity and made to perform all kinds of antics for the entertainment of the two-legged race. Also, many circus owners cut down on their expenses by reducing the quality and quantity of food for the animals and also made small cages for them which hemmed them physically and destroyed their spirit. The Government also passed an amendment banning use of children below 18, in the circus troupes. Again, rightly so as some young children were sold to the circus owners for a pittance and were made to do daring acts which sometimes caused them permanent injuries. They were made to live under inhuman conditions and on a frugal diet to stunt their growth as that helped to do balancing acts and stunts with greater ease. But these two amendments were the final nail in the coffin of circus entertainment.

Some of the big circuses still plodded on hoping that their fortunes would change but the three waves of covid put paid to that. Today, circus, as an entertainment for the masses has lost its appeal. The audience gets its adrenalin pump from watching dare devil feats on TV shows like ‘India has Talent’. Channels like National Geographic or Sony Earth show animals in all their wild splendour. Shows like Bear Grylls’s Man vs Wild allow us to have an animal adventure vicariously. So, the human psyche that wanted its adrenalin pump from watching acrobats and animals in the circus, gets its fix from TV shows that show animals in their natural habitat and acrobats competing with one another.

And yet one feels a sense of loss for the halcyon days of entertainment where circus had played a very dominant role. Ernest Hemingway had once retorted that ‘the circus is the only ageless delight that you can buy for money.’ Not anymore, I guess. Perhaps, if we had followed some human practices in this entertainment industry, perhaps if there had been more government support for its artists, perhaps if this generation had been more sympathetic to the constraints of this industry, the circus of yore would not be leaving town. The casual quote ‘Darling girl, when all else fails, join the circus’, is clearly not true anymore.

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