When was the last time you watched the circus? For that matter, when was the first? My first memories of the circus are hazy, involving a glitzy European troupe that travelled to an annual festival in the Middle Eastern city I lived in. Svelte acrobats with their hair pulled back twisted and danced with hoops to beautifully produced music. Spotlights shone on jugglers, contortionists and clowns. There was no banter, everything was effectively mimed, and as a young girl I came away from the tent with happy memories and shiny eyes. If I try to recall the small circuses I’ve seen, the only thing that comes to mind right now is that they were… glitzy.
Cut to India. India has a long history of circuses. The Keralite town of Thalassery is known for producing most of the country’s circus artists, dating all the way back to when the Great Indian Circus, born in 1880, toured the country. Kalari teacher Keeleri Kunhikannan, largely regarded as the father of the Indian circus and having trained young martial arts students in the circus arts since 1888, opened a legit circus school in Chirakkara, near Kollam. The school has given birth to several well-organised circus troupes. Over the past century, several circuses have grown in the country, including Gemini Circus, which is well-known for its use in Mera Naam Joker and Shikari. One of the newest big names in the circus industry, and currently one of the best known, is Rambo Circus. Started in 1991 by P.T. Dilip, the family-owned business was a fusion of four old circuses: Oriental Circus, Arena Circus, Victoria Circus, and Fantasy Circus. Rambo Circus is currently run by Sujit and Sumit Dilip, sons of the founder.
We swung by the Rambo Circus grounds in Sanpada, Navi Mumbai a few weeks ago. The circus occupied a large expanse which housed a traditional big-top tent, behind which artists and crew set up their camp. Operating two shows on a daily basis, Rambo Circus has a variety of acts that include acrobats, contortionists, trapeze artists, an elephant act and several more. Several of the circus’ artists are hired on contract from Nepal and Ethiopia, and this may have something to do with the fact that the circus isn’t really well-respected in the country. “No one would want their children to work in the circus,” Sujit Dilip told us. “In Europe, being a circus artist is an actual career, and artists get a lot of respect. It’s not like that over here. Even though this is our profession now, we send our children out to study so that they can do something else.”
Many of Rambo Circus’s artists perform multiple acts. Jugglers double up as acrobats, a dog trainer also performs on a stunt bicycle. Some have only been around for a couple of years, having performed with other smaller circuses in the past. We watched a two hour show, which included some stellar performances, all of which were extremely well-rehearsed. According to Dilip, the daily routine of a circus artist involves a few hours of rehearsal, and a mere fifteen minutes of performance per day. The show saw the standard repertoire of circus acts, including bareback horse-riders, hoop dancers, contortionists and trained dogs, all set to a soundtrack of instrumental versions of old Bollywood songs. However, the grandeur of the whole production seemed forced, especially since there were a mere handful of people in the audience. Dilip confirmed that this is the case in recent times. “Now, people think that a two-hour show is too long,” he said, recalling that there was once a time when audiences wished the shows were longer.
Rambo Circus is the only circus in the country which participates in World Circus Day, which took place this year on April 20. Dilip explained that it was a day to celebrate the career path they had chosen. On April 20 and 21, members of the Rambo Circus performed a special show for World Circus Day. With six shows over the duration of both days, the troupe celebrated the versatility and art of the circus on this annual occasion. Circuses all over the world organise special events on this day, registered with the Federation Mondiale du Cirque. On April 20, Rambo Circus chose to donate a day’s salary to drought-affected families in Maharashtra as part of their celebrations. And continuing those celebrations, the circus is also bringing its acts indoors, to the Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai.
“Rambo Circus will only be in your city for a few more days, after which it will move to another city,” said the compere, as we walked out of the big top. The circus has currently pitched its tent in Pune, at SSPMS Ground. The circus performs three shows a day, and will remain in Pune till June 2. Tickets are priced between Rs 150 and Rs 250, and you can get them here.
Photos by Vivek Manek and Shalaka Pai