Home >News >Business of Life >Now streaming, the great Indian circus

Tulsidas Choudhary knows exactly how he wants to look on his deathbed: a clown in bright polka-dotted overalls with matching wig, and a red-lipstick smile stretched to his earlobes. At 74, Choudhary is the oldest circus artiste in the country. While building a career as a clown over 60 years, he’s been focused on one thing: making people laugh.

In the past five months, however, two thoughts have kept him busy. First, death. Second, joblessness. They’re both very new thoughts for a man who’s never thought about anything but happiness.

Ever since he turned 11, Choudhary had to hear taunts from friends and family about his 3ft 5 inch frame. He constantly worried about whether he would ever be happy. A chance visit to a circus playing near his school in 1957 brought him the answer. “That afternoon I made a promise to myself: I would become a clown, make people and myself happy," recalls Choudhary, sitting in a circus tent in Manargudi that would have been alive with lights and applause had it not been for the coronavirus outbreak. He and 100 fellow performers and crew of the century-old Great Bombay Circus are stuck in the Tamil Nadu town because of the pandemic.

With nothing to do but practise his joker walk for an hour and chat with his colleagues, thoughts about “the end" creep in. “I was so focused on living a life full of happiness that death never came to mind till this lockdown," he says. “What if we all die jobless?" Choudhary left home when he was 12 to join the circus, and has since seen his diminutive height as “god’s gift".

Between Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker (1970) and Hrithik Roshan’s Krrish (2006), the first and the last mainstream Hindi films Choudhary was part of, he has seen the circus go from being a major national attraction to just another event. It hasn’t been the same for the past 10 years, he explains, with newer forms of entertainment and a ban on performing animals. But covid-19 has brought India’s circus industry, which employs close to 1,500 artistes, to a standstill. It’s not the end, he insists. “We are not yet giving up."

This ray of hope has come from two millennials—Aditya Shah, who works with an HR startup in Bengaluru, and Suganthan Asokan, an engineer-turned-digital marketing professional who’s employed in the edtech sector in Mumbai. At a time when circuses across the world are struggling—the world’s biggest Cirque du Soleil recently filed for bankruptcy protection—these two are trying to transform the Indian circus industry, drawing on their experience of both technology and entrepreneurship.

Shah’s family has been in the business of financing circuses for a century. After the lockdown was enforced, Shah’s father, Rajesh asked him to find a “techie route" to care for artistes, animals and management stranded across the country. Food and healthcare for staff and animals, paying salaries and rent for land where the circus tent is pitched, and maintaining equipment can cost upwards of 5 lakh a month. “It’s not easy, especially when there’s no income," complains Rajesh, 58, who’s tracking the conditions of circus staff from his home in Vadodara. “Our government supports cinema, theatre. Circus is invisible to them."

That wasn’t the case when the first circus welcomed visitors 140 years ago. The circus was then a rare spectacle that people in towns and villages keenly awaited during the festival seasons. Juggling, acrobatics, fire-eating, sword-swallowing—these were acts only seen live in bright red tents that could house 8,000 people and over 100 animals at a time. So highly regarded was the circus that politicians like Jawaharlal Nehru, V.K. Krishna Menon and Indira Gandhi brought visiting dignitaries and ambassadors to shows. They introduced railway concessions, reduced rent for grounds and abolished entertainment tax. Many circuses did successful foreign tours, and it was celebrated in TV and cinema.

“The decline started from 2013," says K.M. Sanjeev, the current owner of Great Bombay Circus, which was planning to celebrate its centenary towards the end of 2020. From over 300 circuses two decades ago, India now has about 10. The ban on wild animals and children sent many circuses in bankruptcy. “Imagine seeing a lion 2ft away… matching that is impossible," says Sanjeev, 57. Circuses have introduced artistes from Russia, Africa and the US, but it hasn’t worked. There’s been a 40% decline in revenue since 2010, he says.

Aditya didn’t know much about the rich tradition of the circus in India till his father recently showed him yellowing black-and-white photos of a four-year-old Rajiv Gandhi sitting on his mother’s lap, cheering for a dancing elephant, and former President Rajendra Prasad inaugurating a show. “I have grown up being part of the industry but was never really part of it," explains Aditya, 31, who’s currently pursuing MBA from the Indian School of Business. After completing his Global Innovation and Entrepreneurship program at Stanford seven years ago, he decided to work with his father and bring innovation to the industry. “But everybody was so stuck in their old ways that I lost interest within a year.“

On 27 March this year, after his father’s call for help, he reached out to his friend Asokan who had experience raising funds for causes. Asokan wasn’t sure. “I had never seen a circus. I thought it was one of those tier-2, tier-3 things, and I’m big on animal safety. I thought why don’t they just shut it," confesses Asokan, 25. But he learnt that if the circus shut down, thousands would be jobless since they don’t have an education or other skills.

TIME FOR ACT 2

Suraj Jadhav, 32, has never lived a day outside the circus tent. “I was born in a hospital, 500m from our tent in Mumbai," laughs the juggler of Great Bombay Circus, whose parents and grandparents were circus artistes. “We don’t know any other life," adds Poonam, a hula-hoop artist and Suraj’s wife.

With this in mind, Aditya and Asokan started a Ketto crowdfunding campaign. It received support from corporates, actors and the general public, raising over Rs1 crore. It inspired them to look at Act 2 of the great Indian circus. “The future of 1,500 people was at stake. We couldn’t just let it die," says Asokan.

They studied international circuses and charted their pivots. The Ketto campaign brought along other opportunities. An OTT channel wanted to bring live circus shows to mobile phones. “People can buy tickets online and watch the show from their homes," says Aditya, without offering the name of the platform they are in talks with. They are finalizing the script of a documentary, which will chart the journey of Indian circus, along with boosting the presence of circuses on social media. “People don’t know when a circus is 1km away. We are trying to put it on the map," adds Asokan.

Sujit Dilip, owner of Rambo Circus, whose crew of 70 is stuck in a tent in Airoli since March, is hopeful the digital revolution will bring respect to the profession. “It’s a skill not many have, yet people still don’t want to say they work in a circus," says Dilip, 45.

The solutions were always there, admits Aditya, “but it took a virus to make us see them". He’s now waiting for lockdown restrictions to ease so they can start filming live shows of all the big circuses with professional equipment.

Tulsidas Choudhary, meanwhile, adds an extra dab of vermilion to his cheeks before he goes into the ring to practice. “I can’t wait to be part of the new Indian circus. I’m not dying before that," he laughs.

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