Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Great Indian Vanishing Act

Hours would be spent rallying the parents for just one quick peek, backed by days’ worth of impeccable behaviour. Friends, neighbours and cousins would be enlisted to rustle up a respectable number. And finally the much-awaited day would arrive. Armed with various goodies (yes, we all did carry a mini-picnic basket everywhere in those days!), and wide-eyed with anticipation, we would make our way to the end of town, where a magical world awaited.

Upon entering the colourful tents fluttering madly in the breeze, the awful stink and jostling crowds would fade away, the half-opened bar of chocolate forgotten and the cold Gold Spot in my hand would just sputter and fizz out, as I watched the delights unfold within that cramped space. The stale air would resonate with the roar of animals, mixed with loud yells, whistles and hoots from the audience.

For such was the magic of Baby Jyoooootsnaaaaa! Now, till this day, I have no idea if the said Baby Jo (of Amar Circus fame, if I recall correctly) was the nimble little lady who comfortably fit into the mouth of the hippopotamus or Lady Hippo herself, but the name and the flourish with which it was announced are burned into memory, the words as clear as if it were yesterday. Sadly, though the memory survives, the origin of this childhood fascination is dying a slow, painful death.

For, almost 130 years after the circus as we know it first made its debut in India, it’s slowly fading into oblivion, hit by rising costs, ban on the use of wild animals, animal rights activism and the rise and rise of malls, multiplexes and amusement parks. Though it continues to exist on the fringes of some little towns or neighbourhoods, its days as mainstream entertainment are definitely over, barring a miracle.

I read somewhere that only one-fifth of Indian circus troupes are still around, and those too are barely hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Sadly, while we are enamoured by the latest state-of-the-art stunts in mobike advertisements, there seem to be no takers for those with the real josh who would spin their deadly motorcycles round and round in a metal globe suspended from the ceiling, while we craned our necks to marvel at this great feat that we would never get to see on any street. Suitably called the “Chamber of Death” or some such fearsome title, the guys who dared to enter it were the closest you got to cool!

In fact, it seems that this generation has no idea that King Khan was once part of a very famous circus group! On TV. Way back in 1989. In the hugely popular telly serial Circus, on Doordarshan. And the audiences lapped it up. Just like we slurped at our melting ice-creams, awestruck and trying not to cower as the lions and tigers were brought on stage, nearly jumping out of our skins every time the trainer cracked his whip nearby. There were no cages as the magnificent animals strutted their stuff, while doing strange antics with footballs and hula hoops and what not. And those growls...

Then there were the brightly dressed ladies with their sequined ballet tights and heavily made up faces, who swung with both grace and uncanny ease from ropes strung a mile high, or so it seemed to us little ones. The ease with which similarly bedecked male trapeze artists caught the swinging ladies brought forth gasps and claps in equal measure.

Now I often hear the same gasps from those who think that a circus is the greatest exploiter of both animals and humans. While that may be true in part, a circus troupe is also a great community –bridging the gap between master and animal in its larger-than-life magnificence. It’s sad that an art that has the potential to lift us above the ordinary – without any computer-generated tricks or big ticket stars – is slowly disappearing in India, while it continues to sizzle in newer forms in some countries.

The world-famous Cirque du Soleil (French for ‘Circus of the Sun’) has given a modern twist to the good ol’ circus routine. Without animals on stage or performing rings, it is a fusion of circus styles from around the world and its daily show in Las Vegas alone draws a crowd of thousands each night! Maybe I'll catch it someday soon, after having passed up the chance once... But how I wish I could magically transport half its success back here, and then maybe get to see a real smile on those sad sad clowns with the painted faces.

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