While it’s clear the circus is well past its prime, it still manages to draw crowds thanks to the romance associated with it.

The show goes on Once a glorious spectacle Jumbo Circus now survives on nostalgiaJumbo Circus
Features Human Interest Monday, January 22, 2018 - 17:09

Most of us think of circuses with a dash of nostalgia – and even if we haven’t actually seen a circus, we have enough pop culture references to make us believe we have witnessed one. A kitschy wagon plying the roads, throwing flyers and loudly announcing the arrival of the circus in town, followed by a train of laughing children, leaping in the air to catch these colourful bits of paper.

Well, reality is far more sordid and ordinary.

Now, when a circus comes to town, there are flyers put up on electric poles, behind buses and autos, or it is painted on walls.

And that’s how I heard that Jumbo Circus was back in Chennai.

In the fading light of dusk that evening, I see quite a few people have gathered to watch the circus.

Having lived in the city for close to 25 years, Hania Ahmed says that it’s her first time attending a circus. “I haven’t ever been to a circus performance and I have only now got the opportunity to come with my son,” she says excitedly.

I am told by the manager that Jumbo Circus was founded in 1977 by Moorkoth Vangakandy Shankaran, fondly referred to as Gemini Shankarettan.

I also learn that Kerala is called the cradle of circuses in India for giving birth to so many prominent troupes in the country – the Great Rayman Circus, Great Lion Circus, Great Bombay Circus, Gemini Circus and more.

Running a circus isn’t easy; it involves a lot of discipline. The tents have to be pitched, trapeze bars are hoisted, nets have to be strung on the ground – this ritual has to be repeated many times every single day.

Shankar tells me that this particular troupe has performed across the country – in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata – and even overseas – in Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia.

“The thing with performing in another country is the hassle that comes with transportation. The travel alone takes a month by sea,” says Suresh. 

Circuses were forced to undergo a sea change when the amendment to Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, was passed ensuring that key acts involving animals like lions, tigers, camels, horses, monkeys, elephants, dogs, birds and more had to be discontinued.

It was these animals that drew Tanya Mukesh from Kolkata to the circus when she was just seven years old. “I loved performing with animals and birds. I used to talk to them all the time; they were like my friends,” she smiles.

Having joined the circus very young, Tanya used to perform close to 15 acts at one point in time. “Now I just do six or seven,” she says. 

Tanya’s husband, Mukesh, is the circus' star performer. Mukesh has been performing from the time he was 13 years old. In 2012, the couple took the television reality show India’s Got Talent by storm – performing some gravity-defying trapeze stunts. 

Having found love in the circus, Tanya and Mukesh, who now have a two-year-old son, continue to be a part of it. “So far, things are good. But when my son grows old enough to join school, we might face some difficulty,” says Tanya.

Flying acrobats in shiny unitards, clowns of all sizes and girls balancing lit candelabras while performing boneless stunts are some of the prime attractions now. 

Every twirl, every flip, every swing is timed to the second. However, a stray hoop did miss its mark and an acrobat mistimed his flip. But the audience is entertained nevertheless – gamely cheering on every act.

In a bid to lure crowds, the circus has signed up foreign artistes to perform too. Anthoni from Tanzania and Zekaray Hagos and Ashenafi Tumaiy from Ethiopia drew loud applause that night.

A true showman, Anthoni had the crowd on its feet with his weightlifting stunts. “I lift one 60-kg kettlebell and two 50-kg kettlebells. I was a part of a bigger circus troupe in Tanzania, but I now travel alone.”

So what keeps him going? “I like the mix of cultures I get to experience in different cities. I’ve also picked up a little bit of Hindi. Thoda thoda malum,” he laughs. 

During its glory days, the circus has seen several important figures watch its shows, including former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Former Chief Ministers of Kerala EMS Namboodiripad and EK Nayanar, former West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, Former Chief Minister of Andhra NT Rama Rao, and several others.

However, it is quite clear that the circus is well past its prime. The crew performing in Chennai has a total of 120 members – a number that has come down substantially in the recent years.

“Profits aren’t high and sometimes we don’t get the grounds. Shows sell-out during the holiday season after which there’s a lull except for the weekends when there’s a good crowd. Business is not how it used to be,” rues Suresh, the manager. 

Hosted at SIAA Grounds, behind Chennai Central Railway Station, tickets for the show are priced at Rs 100, Rs 180 and Rs 249. For more details, call 9961896322, 7907281761, 6380771804. Shows are at 1.00 pm, 4.00 pm and 7.00 pm daily, until 21 February.