Sunday, February 7, 2010

Circus: Behind the glitter

Are you eager to see the risky escapades and stunts of artistes and get exhilarated? Gemini Circus is back in city after a long gap of six years with its colourful artistes, animals and a seemingly glittering life; you would love to be in their shoes.
This Weekend Star Supplement peeps into the lives of the performers behind the stage who put their lives in danger and risk at every point to entertain and thrill us.
‘Circus is our home’
The Gemini International Circus was founded by Moorkoth Vengakandy Shankaran, popularly known as Gemini Shankarettan, along with K. Sahadevan on Aug 15, 1951. The maiden performance of Gemini Circus was held on Aug 15, 1951 in Billimoria town, Gujarat.
He led our country’s delegation to the World Circus festival held in 1964, in Moscow and Yalta. The entire delegation was given diplomatic visas by the Govt. of India.
Shankaran was also a partner in Apollo, Vahini and Grand Jumbo Circus. He started the Jumbo Circus on Oct. 2, 1977. During the year 1953, T.K. Kunhikkanan and K.S. Menon joined the Gemini circus as partners. After two years, K.S. Menon left and started his own circus. Shankaran’s eldest son Ajay Shankar is the Managing Partner of Jumbo, Gemini and The Great Royal Circus. His younger son Ashok Shankar is also a partner of Jumbo, Gemini and The Great Royal Circus.
Famous Raj Kapoor movie Mera Naam Joker was picturised in Gemini Circus.
A circus is a traveling company of performers. It includes acrobats, clowns, animals, trapeze acts, hoopers, tightrope walkers, jugglers, unicyclists and other stunt-oriented artistes. The word also describes the performance that they give, which is usually a series of acts that are choreographed to music. A circus is held in an oval or circular arena called a ring with tiered seating around its edge; in the case of traveling circuses this location is most often a large tent called the big top.
Artistes, animals like elephants, dogs, horses, camels and even birds are the lifeline of a circus. Artistes perform strange antics and acrobatics such as the stunts inside the cage of death, where three motorcycle riders race inside a closed cage, and also a cricket in which four elephants display their batting art.
Craving for the admiration and applause, many youngsters run away from homes or coax their parents and join circus. It is only when they enter the different world of circus, do they understand that behind the glitter there exist a hard-working, perspiring life.

When SOM spoke to a few artistes of Gemini Circus, they shared their hopes and experiences gladly with us.
Shobha Rani, a native of Kerala, has been in circus for the past 30 years and circus is her family. Her husband Babludas from West Bengal has been working in circus from 35 years. She says she met her husband in the circus itself, fell in love & married. They have a daughter who is studying in Kerala.
Recalling her first entry to circus, Shobha says, “I was in school when I first saw the circus and immediately wanted to join it. My father was scared to send me to the circus and tried to scare me saying elephants might trample me but it didn't help. And once I joined, the training was so hard that I wanted to go back home. But in time I got used to it and began to enjoy it."
Shobha and Babludas do many stunts solo and together. Shobha performs 'Skywalk', where she climbs a shaky ladder to the top which is kept on the table 40-50 feet above the ground level, without any safety net.
She stands straight and holds a stick on top of which is balanced four glasses of water with eggs. With a swift move-ment, she breaks the eggs which fall inside the glasses, without losing the balance or toppling the glasses or eggs.
Babludas rides a tiny cycle carrying Shobha on his shoulders. They both say in unison that any artiste will get inspiration to do better only with the claps and appreciation of the audience. They live in the family quarters of the circus camp.
Shobha's ambition after the circus life is to experience the life of a housewife which she had never gotten till now. “After my life in circus, I want to stay in home & look after my daughter just like a normal mother,” she added.
Of special interest in the circus are a group of Tanzanians (picture above) who have arrived in the city on a contract for a period of six months with the Gemini Circus. The 8-member troupe dance, perform gymnastics and play with fire. They swallow the fire, juggle it like a plaything and even snuff it inside their trousers without any apprehension. They even light up a rod and bend beneath it, just 2 ft. from the ground, emerging from other side.
They welcomed us with glee and happily set forth telling about themselves, laughing and joking in their language in the midst of eating food. They say this is the first time they are working for Gemini Circus. Sada, who said she was happy to be in Mysore which is cool, says she has worked in circus for three years. They all say they joined circus because they fell in love with it when they saw the perfor-mances of the artistes in their home country.
Antony, Frankie, Rosie, Omoganga, Siwema and Omari say they loved the res-ponse of the Indian audience which makes them feel encouraged to do better.
Sarita, who is from Nepal, climbs the single swinging rope and climbs to the top with a hand and a leg, all the time swinging. She balances beautifully at a great height. She is married to an performing artiste and is living with her husband and baby at the circus. When asked how she feels when she is at such a great height, she replied laughingly, "At first I would be terrified. But now I feel free and thrilled. I feel light and happy.”
“There is a good response to the circus here. People are coming in good numbers not only from urban areas, but also from rural areas. More-over children enjoy a lot. The applause of the children make us feel happy and proud,” she said smiling.
Many children from Nepal, Assam, Bengal etc. like Ajith and Suraj join circus leaving their studies, opposing their parents. They say they are more interested in earning a living than studying, because they have poor families at home and have to look after their needs.
It is easier to train children who join early because they are very flexible and can perform difficult stunts.
Suman, another cycling artiste who has been presented an award from the circus company for her cycling feat, performs with burning sticks while riding the cycle. Recalling the lyrics “Jeena yaha marna yaha iske siva jaana kaha..” she said she enjoyed working there. “Circus is life for me and the people working here. I am happy with this life,” she added.

Circus is a dying art with diminishing public interest and absolutely no government support except in Kerala where the government offers a pension for retired circus performers. Yet, according to some, there seems to be a lot of takers, especially youngsters. Call it escapism, lure of livelihood, or just plain fascination, but whatever the reason, they seem to enjoy every bit of this art/profession.
A typical day: The day begins at 6.30 am with vigorous practice session upto 11 am. Then it's time for a small nap for those who want it but, for the rest, it's time to get ready for the first show at 1 pm, followed by 4 pm and 7 pm shows.
Shared living: The accommodation is divided into the bachelor's pad, the girls' lodgings and another for those living with the family, with an in-charge for each. The access to the girls' areas is highly restricted. They even dine separately while the boys do so with the family residents at the circus mess.
Apart from the artistes, six elephants, six horses, three camels, 20 dogs, two ostriches, ten Macaw and African bird Kakatoes and three cats also perform along with eight jokers.
Circus Manager Rajendra says the company spends about Rs. 80 thousand a day for food, Rs. 70,000 for artistes and Rs. 20,000 for animals. After having forced to shut down some of its popular acts, including the ones featuring the wild cats, circuses have become less profitable. The average salaries for artistes range from Rs. 4000 to Rs. 8000.
Most circus artistes do not know any other vocation and hesitate to go out searching for other jobs. Circus is all they know.
[oct. 3, 2009]


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