The Big Top has been put up in a roll – the clowns have removed their greasepaint, and the trapeze swings and rope ladders are gone. The cockatoos, camels, and camels have gone to new pastures.
The Great Bombay Circus, India’s oldest and longest-running circus, has been pulled out from Chennai. If reports are believed, the chaos may not ever be back.
All over the world, lights are being put on the circus ring. The most famous British names like Billy Smart’s and Chipperfields shut down their operations several decades ago. Barnum and Bailey in the US, which staged what they called “The Greatest Show on Earth’, closed in 2017 after 146 years.
The Great Bombay Circus marks its centenary in the year 2000 – and it could be a case of hundred and over.
The restrictions on using wild animals have eliminated some of the stars from the circus. The show I watched in Chennai in February included some camels, a group of performing dogs, and a collection of cockatoos and macaws, but not the big cats or elephants that were once a major draw. In an age filled with VR and computer-generated images, the simple act of circus, acrobat, and juggling performances can be a tame beast.
The crowds have yet to gather in the size they did. A Great Bombay Circus was put on three daily shows in Chennai for a month. At times the performers could have outnumbered the audience. The show I attended at 4 pm on a Saturday should be the most popular day of the week. The show was well-attended. However, it needed to be more whole. In addition, many had coupons from newspapers offering a massive discount on the ticket price advertised.
Circuses that travel have massive overheads. For instance, the Great Bombay Circus once had an audience of performers and support staff totaling 300. Along with the stress of making ends meet, the circus has more difficulties finding a suitable venue for their large tent. In Chennai, the central area they occupied, the vicinity of Central Station, no less could not be there shortly, but the railways are planning to use it.
The show still has plenty of excitement for those who went both old and young. Even the cheapest seats were close to the spectacle. It’s an excellent value for the time: a show that lasts over two hours and features over thirty acts. Costing between Rs 100 and Rs 300.
The performers appear repeatedly in the ring throughout each performance, and they are required to get very little rest and recovery time. Circus clowns have been in the circus for years, and, yes, they perform. Their slapstick is old-fashioned, and the humor is forced. Other performers were younger, namely circus performers and jugglers from Ethiopia and Manipur and a women’s group from Nepal. The performance of a Russian female rope performer who slid down from the apex of the stage almost as if she was playing a yo-yo gave the most memorable “wow” highlight of the evening as the image of a dog sitting on its hind legs with the parasol made me think that all animal acts were banned from the circus arena.
The Grand Bombay Circus was founded in 1920 and was primarily performed within Punjab and Sindh. 1947 the company merged with two companies to form The Great Bombay Circus. Its peak was a short time after that. Since that time, there has been a slow decline. Many of India’s biggest circus companies have shut down over the last 20 years.
The main tent in Chennai was tawdry. The blurred black-and-white photographs of circus stars were a generation older. The safety nets used for high-ropes routine were ripped and replaced, and you often wondered if it was still suitable for use. The website for the circus has not had a refresh in 10 days or in the time after the Chennai season was over; the Facebook page has not been updated since June 2017.
If it is the case that Great Bombay Circus survives its centenary year, it will have little time to continue.
In many of Europe, the nouveau circus, or “new circus,” is a significant change from the conventional itinerant style of the circus. It’s an art form that involves more costumes, choreography, and color and is woven into a seamless show instead of a series of distinct acts, often involving animals and clowns.
It is a fresh approach to developing the traditional circus-hand skills of agility, balance, and hand-eye coordination. It uses the surreal and dreamlike to captivate the audience. The top performer of this kind of show, Canadian-based Cirque du Soleil, created their India debut just more than a year ago.
However, for those of a certain age going to the classic Big Top awakens childhood memories and provides moments of wonder and joy. I was delighted to offer an end-of-year visit to the circus.
Andrew Whitehead was a BBC editor and journalist for several years. He is an adjunct instructor at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. A previous version of this piece was first published on Andrew Whitehead’s site.