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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  The circus won’t die
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The circus won’t die

On World Circus Day, meet one of the last living founders of legendary circuses and the people around him

M.V. Shankaran with his pet elephant at his home in Kerala. Photographs by Hemant Mishra/MintPremium
M.V. Shankaran with his pet elephant at his home in Kerala. Photographs by Hemant Mishra/Mint

What would 6,000 buy you these days? A meal for two at a posh restaurant? A nice tan courtesy a return ticket from Bangalore to Goa? You could, of course, opt for a down-payment on a two-wheeler.

It got M.V. Shankaran and his business partner K. Sahadevan one elephant, two lions and a tent, among other things, when they bought the Vijaya Circus in 1951. The 50-60 performers who chose to stay with the new owners were a bonus.

To say that 90-year-old Shankaran has had a colourful life would be an understatement. He trained on the horizontal bar and the trapeze at an academy when he was 13, joined the British war effort when he was 17 (he wanted to fight for his country, he says), joined Kolkata’s Boselion Circus as a trapeze artiste in 1948, and saved enough money to buy a failing circus in 1951, when he was 27.

At 5ft, 8 inches, Shankaran could easily pass off for someone two decades younger. Standing erect, if a trifle frail, he is happy to show off his two pet elephants, feeding them bananas. They are female Asian elephants whose names he can no longer recall.

Later, sitting on the porch of the 32-room Palmgrove Heritage Retreat in Kannur in Kerala—he is its chief executive officer—he talks about how his circus empire began, and the famous people who visited his circus. He no longer runs Gemini, the circus he founded almost 63 years ago, or Jumbo Circus, which he founded in 1977. His eldest son Ajay Shankar, 53, runs the circuses, while the younger son, Ashok, runs a business in New Delhi. Daughter Renu, 47, lives in Australia.

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Cycling act at Gemini Circus

Soon after Shankaran and Sahadevan purchased Vijaya Circus, they rechristened it Gemini Circus (Shankaran, born in June 1924, is a Gemini). It had its first show on 15 August 1951.

Shankaran says his share of the circus came from the money he earned as an army wireless operator in Allahabad and Kolkata (then Calcutta) in World War II. He joined the army in 1941 and trained in Allahabad, where he was part of a team that kept a watch for enemy aircraft. He started on a salary of 18 a month; this went up to 45 when he finished training some six months later. He was in Kolkata, he says, when Japanese fighters attacked Diamond Harbour—then a port, now a spot where families go to enjoy the waterfront and picnic.

Just before the war ended with the US dropping the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, Shankaran was demobilized in 1944. He made his way back to his hometown, Thalassery, where he joined M.K. Raman’s circus academy. In 1948, he joined the Boselion Circus, where he worked for a year on the trapeze. He left to join the Great Rayman Circus, where he worked for two years.

******

M.V. Shankaran’s story in many ways mirrors the story of India’s circuses. Vishnupant Chatre, the man in charge of the king of Kurduwadi’s stables in Sangli in Maharashtra in the 19th century, is credited with having started the first circus in India. The story goes that Chatre convinced a physical education teacher at a local mission-run school, Keeleri Kunhikannan, to start a circus academy. The school opened in 1901. The school and its disciples in Kerala’s Thalassery town led to that town’s dominance of the circus world in India. Kunhikannan’s school shut down after his death in 1939. Following this, a disciple, M.K. Raman, set up a circus school. That is where the story of Shankaran, or Gemini Shankarettan as he is popularly known, begins.

At age 10, Shankaran went to watch the Kittuny Circus. Ask him how he felt and he counters: “What do you feel when you watch a game of cricket? (I) took a liking (to circuses)."

The Gemini Circus also has artistes from Africa performing stunts
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The Gemini Circus also has artistes from Africa performing stunts

******

Clothes hang limp on the line in the drizzle. In tents nearby, people lounge around or sleep. It is around 3.30pm in June. The south-west monsoon has hit Kerala; it has been raining heavily for days.

But this Tuesday, the weather has cleared enough for the organizers to stage the day’s first show. Around 50 people are scattered through the big tent, watching as trapeze artistes take the stage. When their performance ends, an elephant ambles in with a stethoscope matching his size, and uses it on another pachyderm. Dogs follow this act. Most of them are led up a short stepladder with a slide on one side. One baulks.

There are macaws, camels and horses. The clowns, including two midgets, provide comic relief, distracting the audience from the stage where, between acts, men erect the props to be used in the next act.

As the show winds to a close, Saraswati Vikas, a 25-year-old mother of one who swings on the trapeze, talks about fear, about whether she would do this for a living if she had enough money.

Around her, women in shiny leotards walk out of the big top.

A camel is being led into the tent. It tries to step over a puddle, but lands a hind leg in the water, causing a splash.

Vikas is no longer scared, she says. When she climbs up the trapeze she “takes God’s name and starts the act".

It’s never easy—as the story of Jamuna Ramdas shows. Ramdas used to get scared too. She quit school in class VI to join a circus. The 68-year-old says her father was opposed to her joining a circus. “(But, I was) Young, no? I threw a tantrum."

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Trapeze artists preparing for a show at Gemini Circus

Originally from Thalassery, Ramdas used to ride a motorcycle around the ring in the Balaji Circus in Allahabad. She swung on the trapeze and rode horses, among other things. She was taken by the “people from the circus" who came to recruit children from Chennai to Allahabad, she says.

Her mother died when she was 6 and she lost her father when she was 10. She has a sister, but doesn’t know where she is.

Ramdas joined the Balaji Circus and went on to learn acts which, in the peculiar patois of circus performers in India, are called “items". She thinks she trained for two-three years. Her first act, called “boneless" by circus performers, involves the performer contorting her body in ways that most people cannot.

During a visit to the circus academy later, a girl who could not have been more than 12 is happy to show off the “boneless". She stands on her feet and, arching her back, plants her palms on the ground. She then pushes her head and torso between the V created by her legs, feet still firmly planted to the ground. She then tucks her legs in her armpits and cradles her face in her palms, smiling. Trying to hold the pose, she begins panting. It is painful just to look.

Ramdas doesn’t remember when she quit the circus; it may have been as many as 15 years back. That was in Dubai, she says. She says the circus closed because of a war (presumably the Gulf War in 1991).

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A trapeze artist with a clown before the show

“Now, wherever I am, it doesn’t matter. I am very comfortable here. Nobody is there, so I don’t think about anybody."

Sister Elsina, who helps run the old-age home where Ramdas lives, says the women living there are usually people found wandering, lost, on the streets, people from government hospitals, from orphanages. The home had four people with circus backgrounds, though Ramdas is the only one alive.

******

In the waiting area of the Palmgrove Heritage Retreat, Shankaran thumbs through an album of photographs. He has a similar album at home neatly labelled. This one isn’t, and he flips through the pages, pausing to say aloud the names of the people in the pictures. They are names relegated to the obscurity of school history books. Govind Ballabh Pant, who was Uttar Pradesh’s first chief minister. India’s first president, Rajendra Prasad. The second president, S. Radhakrishnan. Former defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon.

There is a photograph with American civil rights luminary Martin Luther King and his wife. And then there are pictures with Jawaharlal Nehru, when he was prime minister, with his daughter Indira Gandhi, and her husband Feroze Gandhi.

Shankaran’s memory is still sharp, though he does mix up dates. He claims he cannot remember how much he paid for a moribund circus to start Jumbo. He reminds you that he is 90, that many of the events he is being asked to describe took place 20-25 years back.

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M.V. Shankaran with Raj Kapoor (second from left) and Nargis (extreme left)

Shankaran is one of the last living founders of legendary circuses in India. It is hard to imagine the old gentleman, full of old-world courtesy, as anything but a nice guy.

But has his detractors, though there is only one man who will speak ill of him openly. Premkumar, now the promoter of the Great Bombay Circus in New Delhi, who owned Gemini from 2000-05, has had a troubled history with Shankaran. He says Shankaran was never good to his business partners.

The story of Gemini Circus pans out over 62 years and includes a swap of circuses, sales and counter sales, allegations of backbiting and threats of bodily harm. Since it was founded in 1951, Gemini Circus, which started it all for Shankaran, has been sold in full or in part at least three times. At various times, the owners have included Shankaran, Sahadevan, Kunhikannan (not Keeleri), Babubhai Shah, Sitaram “chacha" Poddar, Vinod Sabharwal and Premkumar, and again to the Shankaran family.

As a promoter of the Great Bombay Circus in New Delhi now, Premkumar arranges the area where the circus pitches tent, procures the necessary permit, and pays the bills. “Due to the circus, I lost my flat, I lost my car, I lost my everything and today, I have become penniless," Premkumar says.

There are as many stories about Shankaran as there are people you speak to. Most are sure about one thing. M.V. Shankaran is a nice man. In his dealings with people who were his partners, the narratives diverge. There are those who recount an attempt at a takeover of Gemini, when partners tried to force Shankaran out but employees sided with him, resulting in Shankaran paying his partners money to retain full control.

The Gemini story was revisited in 1977 when Shankaran visited a circus in Kolkata. It was a broken down circus that he had decided to buy, Shankaran recounts. He doesn’t remember how much he paid for it, although it was more than what he paid for Gemini, he says.

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M. V. Shankaran with India’s second president, S. Radhakrishnan

Although circuses are synonymous with the gravity-defying stunts of men and women on high wires, for people like Ajay it is all about the route the circus must take, the availability of grounds if they want to be in New Delhi during the month of Holi, when they are assured of the best crowds.

Ajay says it is like “you are sitting on a tiger. You can’t get off the back. These people (the circus performers) are like family." You have to treat them well, pay them their salaries, whether you are making a profit or not, he adds.

Shankaran continues to believe that circuses will remain popular, even though audiences may have thinned.

Ajay says that when he was growing up the only way you could see animals was at the circus, since there weren’t many zoos back then. Now one just needs to switch on Discovery Channel or National Geographic. But Shankaran and his son say people would still want to watch the circus. “There will never be fewer people at a circus. They don’t know cinema. They don’t know drama. They don’t know computers. They want to see a clown in a circus," Ajay says.

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Published: 19 Apr 2014, 12:07 AM IST
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