Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Vanishing Joker : The Decline of India's Circuses

India's first ever amusement park, 'Appu Ghar', set up shortly after the 1982 Asian Games operated for the last day on February 17, the last day of its operation. Set up almost on the lines of Disney Land and a brain child of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, 'Appu Ghar' closed down in compliance with the orders of the Supreme Court after more than 23 years of its existence to make way for the Delhi Metro and the Supreme Court Library.

There is of course a time for every thing- a time to flourish and a time to fade away and that is what has happened to Appu Ghar. It served the purpose of entertaining a generation and now has gone. But Appu Ghar is not the only institution that is on its way into history. Another institution that is on a life line and appears jaded when seen at all is the institution of the circus – The 130-year-old Indian circus industry, once the favorite form of entertainment with family and friends, is struggling to survive. In 2002, the Indian Circus Federation had 22 members; today, it has only 14.

Circuses in India are hemmed in from every side. They have earned the wrath of animal rights activists. The former Union Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment, Maneka Gandhi, banned the use of bears, monkeys, tigers, lions and panthers in circuses in October 1998 effectively putting circuses in coma. Most of small town India looked forward to circuses as their only means of having some glimpse of wild life as only the bigger cities and towns have zoos. It of course open to debate as to how cruelly the animals were or are treated in circuses, keeping in perspective that In India, circus performers themselves remain stigmatized, a far cry from several western countries where it is often an acceptable, respectable choice for a youngster to make, and where schools for wannabe circus artistes, scholarship programmes, and even websites with 'jobs available' and 'the latest in juggling' posted on them flourish.

Indian circuses have been accused of using children in their acts and using child labor and this is a catch 22 situation. Poor revenues often mean that good wages cannot be paid even if one wants to and besides when there is a steady stream of children waiting in the wings to learn and earn perform in hazardous acrobatic tricks, there is little incentive to do so. “Children, especially girls form the bulk of the performing artists in the circuses, as they are the main crowd attractions. A majority of artists in Indian Circuses are Nepalese girls who have been trafficked from the interior areas of Nepal under the guile of a great life at a very young age

Then there are environmental hazards, particularly fire. Over crowded circus tents with cramped seating and few exits can only mean one thing – that a catastrophe is just round the corner way back in the Nineties , a fire swept the main tent of the Venus Circus in Bangalore sending it crashing down in flames onto a crowd of about 4,000 people and killing more than 60 people. Although no major tragedy has been reported since, condition in circus tents haven’t got much better as any one who has visited one in recent times can testify.

So embedded is the circus in the Indian memory, that when a circus came to town in Bangalore after a long interval , the staid and stiff upper lip newspaper “Hindu” announced its entry with undisguised pleasure. “After six years, Jumbo Circus is back in Bangalore to entertain people during the year end. The show is on at the Palace Grounds, opposite TV Tower, since December 15.” As the circus as a form of entertainment hurls towards what looks like certain extinction, it could be the last time, one will come across such an announcement.

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