Poonam and Suraj Jadhav did not run away from home to join the circus. They were born into one. Both their parents were circus performers and Poonam and Suraj, now 24 and 27, respectively, have never lived anywhere but in a circus tent. When they decided to get married to each other, their parents objected at first; not because they sought a life outside the big top for their children, but because even in the circus—this misplaced icon of free and joyous living—caste is crucial.
The Jadhavs’ living quarters is well behind the big top, past where the camels are tethered while around them performers bathed vigorously in the open. A sudden December rain in the morning had rendered the ground brown and slushy. Parrots and cockatoos screeched noisily next door to the Jadhavs’. But Poonam got ready for her performance, applying powder on her face and choosing a dark rosy blusher, as though this was how everyone lived, in a damp huddle of humans and animals.
In the ring, she is transformed. Wearing a shimmering pink bustier and skirt, she swirls half-a-dozen hula hoops around at once. It seems effortless, her body barely twitching as the hoops swirl around her, making her seem as though she is in the eye of a sparkling tornado. Of course, it isn’t effortless. Jadhav and her colleagues practise every day from 6-11am. Then they get a couple of hours for lunch and make-up. The first show is at 1pm, the next at 4pm and the last at 7pm. Then she wakes up the next morning to the same routine. Suraj did not perform that day because trapeze was the first act and he was talking to us and didn’t get the time to get ready.
When the Jadhavs think about their future, they see themselves living in the circus until one day, like their parents, they too retire to a quiet village in Gujarat. But when they dream about the future, they see themselves rooted to a place, doing a show a day for the guests at Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad, or on contract for performances where they can earn Rs.10,000 an evening. Last year, Poonam participated in Sony Entertainment Television’s show, Entertainment Ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega. She was a finalist and won Rs.1 lakh. On stage, they presented her with one of those gigantic cheques that you only see in reality TV shows and cricket matches. However, now almost 18 months later, they allege, that they are yet to receive the money. “We followed up with them, they kept promising to send the money but never did. Then the person we were coordinating with left the job and now when we call, they get irritated and snap at us,” Suraj says, “we don’t know how to deal with the outside world.”
Truth is, the outside world does not know how to deal with the circus either. Several things have happened in the last 20 years that have increasingly made the circus redundant. Compared to television shows, Xboxes, 3D films and other exciting forms of entertainment, the circus seems a relic of past times. Second, in 1998, after a relentless crusade by animal rights’ activist and former minister for environment and forests Maneka Gandhi, wild animals were banned from performing. This further reduced any interest children may have had in watching a circus.
On its last day at the circus ground in Delhi’s Rajouri Garden, near Vishal Cinema, more than half the seats are empty when the show begins. It fills out slowly, leaving two blank sections at the back. Trapeze artistes swing atop, a cockatoo rides a cycle, an elephant plays cricket with a football. The clowns prance around, a contortionist folds himself three times over. It’s enjoyable but also rather tired. After 40 minutes or so, the audience begins to fidget. Children start wandering about, paying only occasional attention to what is happening in the ring. The acts, like the equipment, feel ancient. For the young, this has nothing by way of the excitement of a Harry Potter movie or a game of Super Mario. Their parents enjoy it a little longer, indulging it for the nostalgia it evokes. But beyond a point, they can’t help notice how much the circus has been grimed by time. It’s a bubble from the past, furiously holding on to an existence.
Outside, in the shadow of the five malls that flank the circus ground, Dilip Nath Nair, who co-owns the Great Bombay Circus, talks about how in 10 years there will be no venues for the circus to play. “What will you do then?” I ask.
“I’ll take it abroad,” he says.
“Why don’t you take it abroad now?”
“There is too much uncertainty in the world now. Afghanistan, Iran, this whole Israel-Palestine situation. In 10 years, all of that would be settled and there will be no tension,” he says. It’s a statement that can be construed either as wildly optimistic or faintly foolish. Much like the future of the circus itself.
The Great Bombay Circus is next stationed at Delhi’s Anand Vihar till the first week of January. The show timings are 1pm, 4pm and 7pm. Tickets are priced at Rs.50-300.