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Malayalam auteur K G George’s Mela (1980) and director Jayaraj Vijay’s Nair Pidicha Pulival (1958) were probably the earliest films in Malayalam about life in a circus. Both films, besides an emotional core and taut screenplay, recreated the awe and delight associated with watching a real time circus show, complete with a live orchestra belting out tunes to match the acts presented on stage.

A show at the Great Bombay Circus that returns to the city after six years, brings back those memories. The big tent is gleaming with decorative lights and and the corridor bears black-and-white photos of personalities like Lal Bahadur Shastri, EMS Namboodiripad, Indira Gandhi and MG Ramachandran visiting the circus. Once inside, music played on the speakers stops, a bell rings and the show takes off to a great start.

The balancing act at the Great Bombay Circus

The balancing act at the Great Bombay Circus
| Photo Credit:
PERIASAMY M

Flying trapeze is the first act. As the performer, grabs the trapeze bar from a high platform, swings and lets go of the bar which is caught by a fellow artiste on a second trapeze, the packed audience erupt in cheers. More tricks like spinning on the swinging trapeze follow and the crowd is delighted. “The audience response keeps us going,” says KM Sanjeev, who now runs the 102-year-old circus company adding that they performed in Chennai for over three-and-a-half months before the pandemic lockdowns. “Then, we went to Mysore, Thiruvananthapuram, Thrissur, and Kozhikode and it has been encouraging.”

The star attraction of the show is a six-member men’s team from Ethiopia, who won bronze medals at the World Competitions) jiving to Afro-beats, while performing jaw-dropping acrobatics, and juggling. The tight rope act sees the performer kick saucers, tea cups onto her head while balancing herself on a thin rope. The ‘tower basketball’ in which a performer slowly and painstakingly bounces a ball to the top of a pole attached to her feet — with the risk of having the ball quiver and  fall — makes the audience hold their breath.

“It takes hours of practice and patience to nail such acts, be it swinging on a trapeze, juggling, riding a unicycle, or ring dance. Strength, agility and perseverance matters,” explains Sanjeev.

All these aspects come to the fore when an eight-member team from Manipur takes over and presents some thrilling acts like spear balance on the chest and acrobatics. The fire dance show is visually stunning and has the dancers moving about to the beats of belly dance. The clowns have been with the circus for decades – and yes, it does show. Their slapstick manages to evoke laughs, especially from children.

Hula hoop dance

Hula hoop dance
| Photo Credit:
PERIASAMY M

Tracing their history, Sanjeev says when Baburao Kadam founded the Grand Bombay Circus in the 1920s in Sindh province (now in Pakistan). Around the time, in Kerala, Keeleri Kunhikannan, a martial artiste and gymnast set up his circus company at Thalassery. His nephew, KM Kunhikannan, merged his two circus troupes, Whiteway and Hind, with Grand Bombay Circus in 1947 and thus was born the Great Bombay Circus. Kunhikannan’s legacy was carried forward by his nephew KM Balagopal under whose leadership, it grew into the largest circus company in India today. When he died in 1993, his sons KM Sanjeev and Dileep Nath took over. “I was doing my schooling in Udhagamandalam and was planning to pursue Law but had to take over the circus following father’s sudden demise,” Sanjeev recalls adding that his 200-member team is ‘a village in a city’ with artistes drawn from India, Russia, and Nepal. “We gel like one big family. We have four kitchens catering to our food requirements.”

Travelling circuses have huge overheads. In addition to making ends meet, finding a space for their big tent is also difficult. “All open spaces are usurped by high rises. Coimbatore’s VOC Parks is one of the best grounds in India. Only the Gujarat State government provides reserved grounds for circuses and exhibitions with minimal charges. Cities like Ahmedabad, Baroda and Surat too have circus grounds for minimal rent.”

A section of the audience

A section of the audience
| Photo Credit:
PERIASAMY M

In addition to daredevilry, the audience, especially in small towns, want to see more animals like tigers and elephants. “The ban on the use of wild animals took the sheen out of circuses. But, we do have acts featuring cockatoos and dogs for which necessary permissions have been secured from the Animal Welfare Board.”

Recalling some of their best moments, he says, “Most political personalities showed patronage to our circus during our heydays. Once when we got stuck in Punjab because of an unrest, the then governor Siddhartha Shankar Ray ensured that our troupe got security. Indira Gandhi has graced our shows. When there was an issue while performing at the Red Fort, she intervened. While MGR ensured that we got the sprawling Kannappa Thidal grounds for our performance, Kalaignar Karunanidhi allotted exhibition grounds for our shows. Those were our golden days.”

Juggling act

Juggling act
| Photo Credit:
PERIASAMY M

Their next stop is Hyderabad. “People should come forward to watch the circus, one of the oldest forms of entertainment. Grandparents, parents and children can come together to enjoy an evening of entertainment. After the lockdowns, we faced a lot of problems, but the public support keeps us going.” For those who came, young and old, the performance lasting over two hours with 30 plus acts, still held magic.

The Great Bombay Circus will be performing in the city till August first week. There will be three shows every day at 1pm, 4pm and 7pm. Each show lasts over two hours and features 30 plus acts. Tickets are priced at ₹100, ₹200, ₹300 and ₹400. For details, call 8893606308, 8778838082, 8714285256.

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