It is a childhood memory stuck in my head like a faulty diskette. Summer in a small town in Jharkhand. A raspy voice screaming ‘Circus Circus’ through a scratchy loudspeaker perched on a rickshaw.
A tacky poster with a woman standing one-legged on an elephant, and a tiger jumping through a fire ring. From a corner a clown peeped. The date, time, venue, the trapeze artistes, elephants, parakeets, women in sequinned shorts, all squeezed within the poster fluttering on the back of a rickshaw. That raspy ‘Circus Circus’ got the little boys running in excitement. Little boys ran behind the rickshaw. So did the dogs.
Still a schoolgirl in pigtails and pinafore, I sure wasn’t as boisterous as the boys. But that summer day, I too would step out into the garden to know all about the circus. Like an annual euphoria. That was days before the circus arrived in the small town. Trucks full of tarpaulin and poles. Animals in cages and clowns lumbering round. The fairground was not far from my father’s bungalow. Sometimes, we’d run to see the animals and laugh a little with the clowns. The stench of animal poop was unbearable, and the snarl of a practising tiger frightening. In the small town, the circus was a big thing.
And then came the magical day. The day of the circus. Father, mother and three little girls. All dressed for the occasion. Holding snacks packs in hand and a pounding heart in the rib cage. There was nary a method to parking madness. Or to the crowd. On the fairground, men hollering selling balloons and wafers. Mothers scolding their runaway kids. Men haggling for ‘children’s discount’. And ushers showing the seats inside the huge tent where iron chairs were arranged in circles. The front row was coveted. That’s where the clowns tickled the palms of babies. And the thud of the falling trapeze artiste the loudest. The orchestra men wore white and black, and the music hit a crescendo. One by one the tricks were played on the stage. Many a jaw dropped in disbelief. Hours later, the orchestra hit another crescendo. The circus had ended for the day.
As a girl in pigtails and pinafores, I knew nothing about circus. No curiosity about the etymology, no nosiness about its history. Neither a debate over whether the Roman circus was actually a precursor of modern circus, or do they merely share the common denominator — the word ‘circus’ which means ‘circle’ or the ‘ring’. The Romans did have animals and gladiators in the ring but modern circus came alive much after the Roman Empire had fallen.
The modern circus was created in England by Philip Astley (1742-1814), a former cavalry Sergeant-Major-turned-showman. After serving in the Seven Years’ War where he gained fame as a horse-breaker and trainer, Astley settled in London and opened a riding school near Westminster Bridge where he taught in the morning and did horse-tricks in the evening in a circular arena in his home. His fame spread and Astley galloped beyond equestrian shows.
He hired jugglers, acrobats, performers as in-between artistes in his show. Then came the vaudeville. And the clown. On April 4, 1768, the modern circus was officially born in Lambeth, England, where Astley set up the first amphitheatre to display horse-riding tricks. Astley was not the first circus showman. Jacob Bates is often considered the first horseman to make a mark for his performance. There were others, too — Price, Johnson, Balp, Coningham, Faulkes, and Old Sampson, all regulars of London’s pleasure gardens. But what Astley did was create a space for all such performances under one roof and in a 42-ft diameter ring — the circus as we know it today.
In the beginning, circuses were held open-air with very limited covered seating. As popularity grew, circuses were held in purpose-built buildings (mostly wooden) with a ring and stage. Travelling circuses or Big Top circuses were introduced in the mid-19th century in which gigantic tents were pitched. Venues changed over the years — what did not change was the 42-ft diameter ring that Astley had introduced in late 18th century. That 42 number was not random. Performing equestrian tricks in a straight line was neither audience- nor horse-friendly. An acrobatic horse rider needed a circular space with at least 42-ft diameter to stand upright on a cantering horse. The circle was also ideal for the centrifugal force. After all, the horse trick space was all about physics!
Astley set an entertainment trend, found many takers, and many followed in his footsteps, the first being Andrew Ducrow, often called the Father of British circus equestrianism. Owner of Astley’s Amphitheatre, Ducrow’s most famous act was Courier of St Petersburg which is still repeated in equestrian-heavy circuses. He, along with his sons, would often stand on the rumps of white stallions wearing fleshings (flesh-coloured stockings). On November 4, 1782 Charles Dibdin opened the Royal Circus in London. The same year Astley established the Amphitheatre Anglais in Paris, the first purpose-built circus in France, followed by 18 other permanent circuses in cities throughout Europe.
Soon, circus was introduced in the United States by John Bill Ricketts who opened a circus in Philadelphia on April 3, 1793, a show that George Washington attended later that season. Ricketts was a Scotsman; the first American to operate a major circus in the country was Victor Pegin, a New Yorker. Many other players forayed into circus entertainment, but it was P T Barnum and William Cameron Coup who revolutionised American circus with the launch of P T Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus. A travelling circus, Barnum also included animal and human oddities as part of the circus exhibition. Coup introduced circus trains to transport the circus from one town to another; he is also credited with the first multiple-ringed circuses.
Over the years, circus changed its format. Equestrian tricks made way for pantomime, floor acrobats, tight-rope walkers who developed their art into modern trapeze, jugglers, aerialists and of course, the animals, specially the big cats. The European combination of circus and menagerie triggered the vogue of wild-animal presentations. At the end of World War I, the traditional equestrian circus was nearly forgotten. Changes in culture and aesthetics gave birth to contemporary circus (known as nouveau cirque) which blends traditional circus skills with perfect set, lighting, design, and a plausible theme or a story. Circus is no longer about tigers jumping out of fire rings, it is more a theatrical presentation with utmost emphasis on style and aesthetics that unfolds in a theatre or auditorium. Contemporary Circus is nearly-synonymous with Cirque du Soleil, a Canadian circus company that has had more than 90 million audience in over 200 cities in five continents.
In the ballyhoo of a circus, not many heard the voice of animals used for performance. An elephant that played football. A parakeet that could paint. A dog that recognises number. A bird that rode a mini bicycle. The lions that jumped onto tables at the crackle of a whip. Animal activists have vehemently demanded the non-use of animals in a circus. Horror stories about ill-treatment of animals have been doing the rounds. Voices were raised and legislations promulgated. So far 17 countries have banned circuses that use wild animals — Austria, Bolivia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, El Salvador, Greece, Israel, Malta, Mexico, The Netherlands, Paraguay, Peru, Singapore, Slovenia (Source: PETA).
From that schoolgirl in pigtails dropping a jaw at the small-town circus with fumbling jugglers and dwarf-clowns, I one day sat in a plush seat in Las Vegas to watch Cirque du Soleil. The ticket was pricey, and the theatre packed. I had no front row seat. Perched up in the gallery, I dropped a jaw again. This time at agile men in leotards jumping over each other to make a deft human pyramid; at the dancing girl mid air; at music that sank into the soul, the story unfolding with the twitch of a nimble body and the hurry of a somersault. The circus has changed. I’d never go to a circus with animal performers. That’s no circus for me!
What’s in a name?
First used in the 14th century, the word circus comes from the Latin ‘circus’, which is the romanisation of the Greek word ‘kirkos’ meaning ring or circle.
The word clown is believed to have originated from the Icelandic sod klunni, meaning a clumsy person.
Clowns are nicknamed Joeys after Joseph Grimaldi, a 19th century pantomime artiste. Leotards are named after JulesLeotard, the first star of flying trapeze. The word jumbo (meaning large) comes from Jumbo, an 11-foot-tall elephant that showman P T Barnum acquired from the London Zoo.
“My love affair with circus started with my father P T Dilip. He initially owned Erina Circus and then the Great Oriental Circus and Victoria Circus, which then transformed into Rambo Circus. When he started facing health problems, I gave up my studies and stepped in to help. I was attracted to the magical world of circus instantly; also, the fact that my father was sending me to the Russian federation to learn the Communist way of circus was a major plus point! The journey has been an eventful one. Over time, I have met many international artistes through this medium of entertainment. I remember the time I went to Uzbekistan, which had the second-largest circus in the world then, and our government got into a cultural agreement with them. Their artistes came to India and taught our people all the tricks of the trade.
“For me, circus is real entertainment. It’s all about doing extraordinary things. Circus also goes beyond the limits of entertainment. It is actually a travelling training school as we need to keep learning constantly. Every week, new artistes join our troupe and within a short period of time, we need to teach them all the acts. The fact that we unload 40 trucks and four trailers within four days in every city is a feat in itself. Many a times, the grounds we manage to secure for our performances are garbage dumps. We clean up the place to make it attractive to people. The show business of circus is highly unpredictable; sometimes the tickets sell out fast, while at other times, the business is extremely slow.
“I have had my fair share of problems with the circus; be it false accusations regarding the upkeep of animals in our set-up, or the financial crunches we keep facing constantly. But I would still want my two kids to take this legacy forward. “All said and done, the fact remains that circus is like one big family to me.” Sujit Dilip, owner, Rambo Circus
“It’s been 28 years since I have been into the business of circus now. The chance of seeing Taj Mahal brought me into the world of circus. Years ago, a friend of mine, a circus artiste, told me that their troupe was performing in Agra and invited me to join him. I saw my long-standing wish to see the marble marvel coming true and jumped right in, and have never looked back after that.
“Today, along with a few others, I manage all the aspects of running a circus; be it booking venues, getting performers, ticket-handling and so on. We plan all our shows well in advance because getting the required permission for the shows in public grounds takes time. My day usually starts around 12.30 pm when we open the ticket counters, after which the performances begin and then we wrap everything up by 10 pm. We are on the road for most parts of the year and our holidays are usually the days we spend travelling between places.
“Festivals mean big business for us, as also school holidays, when our cash registers ring.
“But today, circus isn’t as fascinating as it used to be in the earlier days. One major factor that hit us was the rule that no kid below 18 years can work in a circus. It might sound cruel to you, but the fact is flexibility reduces with age. Moreover, getting big grounds in cities is a huge problem today.” P V Jayaprakash, circus manager,Great Bombay Circus — As told to A Varsha Rao