Tulsidas Choudhary has a vision of what he would like to see on his deathbed. He envisions a bright, polka-dotted clown wearing matching wig and a red-lipstick smile reaching his ears. Choudhary, a 74-year-old circus artist, is the nation’s oldest. Choudhary has been a clown for over 60 years and his main goal is to make people laugh.
Two thoughts kept him busy over the past five years. First, death. Second, joblessness. These are both new thoughts to a man who has never thought of happiness.
Choudhary was 11 years old when he began to get taunts from his family and friends about his height of 3ft 5 inches. Choudhary worried constantly about his happiness. In 1957, he discovered the answer when he went to see a circus near his school. Choudhary recalls sitting in Manargudi’s circus tent, where he made a promise to himself: “That afternoon, I made a commitment to myself: I would be a clown, make people happy,” he said. The pandemic has forced Choudhary and 100 other performers and crew members of the Great Bombay Circus, a century-old circus, to stay in Tamil Nadu.
He had nothing but to practice his joker walk for half an hour and have a chat with his coworkers, when thoughts of “the end,” began to creep in. He says, “I was so focused to live a life full on happiness that death never came into my mind until this lockdown.” “What if all of us die jobless?” Choudhary, who was 12 years old, left his home to join the circus. He has ever since regarded his diminutive height “god’s gift”.
He has seen the circus transform from a major national attraction into a mere event between Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker (1970), and Hrithik Roshan’s Krish (2006). He explains that the circus has changed over the past 10 years with newer entertainment options and the ban on the use of animals. However, covid-19 has brought India’s circus industry to a halt. It employs nearly 1,500 performers. He insists that it is not the end. “We aren’t giving up yet.”
This ray of hope has come from two millennials–Aditya Shah, who works with an HR startup in Bengaluru, and Suganthan Ahsokan, an engineer-turned-digital marketing professional who’s employed in the edtech sector in Mumbai. These two millennials are trying to change the Indian circus industry by leveraging their knowledge of technology and entrepreneurship at a time when many circuses around the world are in trouble. The world’s largest Cirque du Soleil filed for bankruptcy protection recently.
Shah’s family has been involved in financing circuses for over a century. Rajesh Shah, Shah’s father asked him to search for a “techie way” to help artistes, animals, and management who were left behind. The cost of maintaining equipment and food, as well as paying rent for the land on which the circus tent is built, can reach upwards to Rs5 lakh per month. Rajesh (58), complains that it’s difficult, especially when there is no income. He monitors the circus staff’s conditions from Vadodara. “Our government supports theatre and cinema. They are not interested in circus.”
This was not the case 140 years ago when the first circus opened its doors to visitors. People in villages and towns waited eagerly for the circus during 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. The circus was so highly regarded that Jawaharlal Nehru and V.K. Indira Gandhi and Krishna Menon invited dignitaries to the shows as ambassadors and diplomats. They made railway concessions, reduced the rent for grounds, and abolished the entertainment tax. It was celebrated on TV and in cinemas by many circuses that they had successful overseas tours.
K.M. says that the decline began in 2013. Sanjeev is the current owner and operator of Great Bombay Circus. He was hoping to celebrate his centenary in 2020. India has only 10. Many circuses were forced to close their doors by the ban on wild animals or children. Sanjeev, who is 57, says that he can’t imagine seeing a lion from 2ft away. Although circuses have brought in performers from Russia, Africa, and the USA, it hasn’t worked. He says that there has been a 40% drop in revenue from 2010 to 2010.
Aditya didn’t know much about India’s rich circus tradition until his father showed him yellowed black-and-white photos showing a four-year old Rajiv Gandhi seated on his mother’s lap cheering for a dancer and ex-President Rajendra Prasad launching a show. Aditya, 31, is currently studying MBA at the Indian School of Business. He decided to join his father and bring in innovation after he had completed the Stanford Global Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program seven years ago. “But everyone was so stuck in their old ways, that I lost interest in the industry within a year.”
After his father’s call for assistance, Asokan reached out to Asokan, who has experience fundraising for causes. Asokan wasn’t sure. “I’d never been to a circus. It was a tier-2 or tier-3 thing, and I care about animal safety. Asokan, 25, admits that he thought it was a tier-2 or tier-3 thing. He learned that thousands of people would lose their jobs if the circus closed down. They don’t have any education or skills.
TIME FOR THE ACT 2
Suraj Jadhav , has never been outside the circus tent. The juggler from Great Bombay Circus, whose grandparents and parents were circus artists, laughs, “I was born at a hospital in Mumbai, 500m away from our tent in Mumbai.” Poonam, Poonam’s wife and hula-hooper, says that she doesn’t know of any other life.
Aditya and Asokan created a Ketto crowdfunding campaign with this in mind. The campaign received support from actors, corporates, and the general public. It raised over Rs1 million. They were inspired to see Act 2 of the great Indian circus. “The future of 1,500 people was at risk. Asokan says, “We couldn’t let it die.”
They studied international circuses, and charted their pivots. Other opportunities were presented by the Ketto campaign. An OTT channel was interested in bringing live circus shows to mobile phones. Aditya says that people can purchase tickets online and view the show from home. She doesn’t give the name of the platform she is in discussions with. They are finishing the script for a documentary that will follow the journey of an Indian circus and increase the visibility of circuses on the internet. People don’t know where a circus is located within 1 km. Asokan says, “We are trying to put that on the map.”
Rambo Circus owner Sujit Dilip, who has his 70-strong crew confined to a tent in Airoli, since March, believes the digital revolution will restore respect for the industry. Dilip, 45, says, “It is a skill that not many people have, but people still don’t want to claim they work in a circus.”
Aditya admits that the solutions were there all along, but it took a virus to get them noticed. Aditya is now waiting for the lockdown restrictions to be lifted so that they can begin filming live shows at all the major circuses using professional equipment.
Tulsidas Choudhary adds a little more vermilion to his cheeks as he prepares to go into the ring for practice. “I cannot wait to be a part of the new Indian circus. He laughs, “I’m not dying before then.”