Life is a ‘circus’? No more in these COVID times

Circuses are among the cultural enterprises particularly affected by the COVID-19 restrictions

Cirque Monte Carlo (Photo courtesy- @CDS_Group Twitter handle)
Cirque Monte Carlo (Photo courtesy- @CDS_Group Twitter handle)

V Venkateswara Rao

Canada's Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group filed for bankruptcy protection on Monday as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the famed circus operator to cancel shows and lay off its artistes. The Montreal-based entertainment company, which runs six shows in Las Vegas, has struggled to keep its business running amid Coronavirus restrictions that started in March, forcing it to lay off about 95% of its workforce and temporarily suspend its shows. Bosses at Cheshire-based Gandeys Circus in UK have voiced their fears about the future of the 'struggling' circus industry in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. Cirque Monte Carlo is one of several circuses that had to stop performing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The European-style circus was started in Italy in 1879 by the Cavallini family, and their first big-top show took place in France under the name Le Cirque Des Cavallini. The circus, which boasts performers from Europe, France, Germany and Spain, opened in Texas on February 6 for its first US show. But after only 7 weeks of a scheduled 11-month tour across the United States, it had to shut down amid the Coronavirus crisis.

In India, the conditions of circus companies and their artistes are pathetic. Jumbo circus, a branch of the iconic Gemini circus, which was started in 1951, is now in an absolute limbo due to the lockdown and has appealed to the Kerala government for aid to ensure the business doesn’t collapse. The circus group, originally from Thalassery, Kerala, has travelled across the country for decades and entertained children with trapeze artists, tricks and mime shows. The last performance was on March 10 and since then the Coronavirus pandemic brought the curtains down on them. With revenue at a standstill and mounting expenses to take care of the staff and animals, the owner of Jumbo Circus is worried about the future of the circus company.

“We require at least Rs 50,000 to take care of over 30 animals – birds, dogs, camels and horses – and over 350 staff members. We have two camps, one in Kottakkal and another in Kayamkulam in Kerala. We are now managing with what we have in our pockets but this is a real strain on our business,” said Ajay Shankar, the owner of the circus. A few of the artistes managed to return to their hometowns, but the others from far away Kashmir, Nepal and Russia couldn't go back and continue to live in the tents erected by the circus group.

The world of circus had already been decimated due to changes in laws and all kinds of restrictions. India had 23 active circuses at the beginning of this century and the business has faded since then. In 1998, the central government banned bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers and lions to be used as performing animals. In 2013, elephants were also officially banned from circuses. Three years later, in November 2016, the government announced the Demonetisation exercise. By 2019, the number of registered circuses in India came down to 10. Now, with the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 pandemic and public avoiding such shows, it is the final nail in the coffin for the circus industry.

Remembering the grand days of the past, M V Shankar, founder of the famous Gemini Circus Company, said that Gemini Circus had hosted the likes of Edwina Mountbatten, Dalai Lama, Jawaharlal Nehru and even Martin Luther King Jr. It was also the circus company in Raj Kapoor's 70's film "Mera Naam Joker". "Nehru recommended the circus to King and asked him to go watch the show. Nehru, who had been all over the world, was so fond of Gemini. It shows that Gemini was at par with circuses all over the world," Shankar said.

Rambo Circus, another major circus company that came into existence in 1991, with the merger of Great Oriental Circus, The Victoria and The Arena, is also struggling to stay in business. "We were somehow managing, then this unfortunate crisis came on," said Sujit Dilip, the Mumbai-based owner. "Earlier, we got good business in villages but now nobody comes to see the circus as there are no animals. Whatever we get is in the cities, that is about 35 per cent of the business we used to get 10 years back," he lamented.

“How long can we survive,” asked a despairing K M Sanjeev, co-owner of Great Bombay Circus, which celebrates 100 years this year. His troupe was stuck in the Tamil Nadu town of Mannargudi for more than two months, resulting in mounting overhead costs.

An empty tent is a circus group’s worst nightmare but the nationwide lockdown due to COVID-19 has compounded the problems of an already struggling business, said Umesh Aagashe, proprietor of Great Bharat Circus in Pune. “The circus has a crew of 62 artistes and supporting staff with 24 animals including dogs, horses, camels and birds. We have not had a show for three months,” he said. Rambo circus was stranded in Airoli, Navi Mumbai, and got support from local corporators for food and survival of its artistes.

In West Bengal state, Chandrakanth Banerjee has closed the doors on his Olympic Circus and told all 75 members of his troupe to go home, with the emotional promise that he would call them back if they "ever make it out of these dark times". "They cried," he told the BBC. "We need people to come and see the shows. With isolation as the new norm, we had to stop," he added.

The circus artistes fearlessly performed dangerous trapeze acts and aerial acrobatics. But they have now bowed down before the stealth of a tiny virus. With the COVID-19 pandemic likely to stay for some more time, the circus owners, the artistes and their families are bracing themselves for what might be the final curtain call.

(V Venkateswara Rao is a retired corporate professional and a freelance writer.)

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Published: 05 Jul 2020, 9:30 PM