| A Russian girl at Gemini Circus. Picture by Sanat Kumar Sinha
Calcutta, Jan. 13: The woman in a red bodice and red shorts, with frills sticking out at the waist, is one of the first performers at Gemini Circus, now showing in Howrah.
She balances a ladder on a raised platform, but keeps moving it with both hands. As the ladder shakes menacingly, she climbs up slowly, one rung after another, till she reaches the top, with nothing to hold on to.
It’s a great act that took three years to perfect, but Shova Das, who’s been with the circus since 1979, is outdone by what happens next. A ravishing young firang, good enough to land a Bollywood item number, comes charging in. She’s in a bikini top and low-slung clingy bottoms. She’s Jana, from Ukraine. The crowd of leering men is in raptures.
The great Indian circus has changed. It’s for grown-ups now. Perhaps, even for voyeurs. Circus owners believe that white artistes and agile gymnasts hold attention better. The response to Jana shows they aren’t wrong.
Gemini Circus has a team of six “Russians”, including Tanya from Uzbekistan, Albina from Russia, Jana from Ukraine and manager Maxim. They are paid more — only the five to six big circuses can afford them — and bring to the Howrah ground the glamour, sex appeal, skill and excitement so far seen only on TV.
So, when did the circus lose its innocence' Since the 1998 ban on showing wild animals, the huge colourful canopies, the blaring music and the smell of elephant excreta have been there, but the tigers, lions, bears and panthers are gone — and so are the children from the stands.
“The children came to see the animals,” says A. Rajan, general secretary of the Indian Circus Forum, in Calcutta.
“Children once made up 65-75 per cent of the audience. That is down to 30 per cent. Ticket rates have had to be hiked, wages have fallen, but we are struggling to make ends meet,” said Rajeev Pant, member secretary of the Indian Circus Federation in Delhi.
“Lions and tigers were our Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan. Now, we use permitted animals like birds and donkeys, but it’s not the same,” says Sudhir Chakraborty, who manages the Empire Circus in Mumbai.
The profit margin before the animal ban was about 20 per cent; it is 2 per cent now. “We spend about Rs 1 lakh per day. We have a hand-to-mouth existence,” says Dilip Nath Nair, who runs the Great Bombay Circus, in Delhi.
The lions were gone, but the need to showcase the exotic stayed. Many say that’s where the “Russians” stormed in. Anybody from any country that was part of the former Soviet Union is a “Russian”. So, while there hasn’t been a sharp decline in the number of employees in circuses, the Indians’ headcount has plunged.
The Russian revolution in the Indian circus hasn’t let other things stay the same, either. And the stirrings of change are sweeping another communist bastion — Kerala.
Earlier, a large number of performers came from the state, but better livelihood choices stopped the flow. “A mason gets Rs 300 per day in Kerala. Why will he join the circus'” says Rajan.
Free food, lodging and provident fund haven’t proved enough of a draw. Now, most girls are from the Northeast, Jharkhand and Nepal.
“They come from areas with the greatest poverty,” says Babloo Das, Shova’s husband, who plays a clown and rides a tiny cycle with his wife.
At Mumbai’s Empire Circus, there are no smiles on artistes’ faces. The birds refuse to obey their masters and the artistes goof up. Then, one showman breaks into an impromptu jig, grooving to a Himesh Reshammiya number. The galleries could hold a thousand, but there’s only a handful.
At Gemini in Howrah, Shova may not be chic, but she has a good body and an elegant hairstyle. Plus, she is hot, not in a crude way that her counterpart might have been 10 years ago.
“Indian girls are not shy like before. They watch films, go to beauty parlours and are not uneasy in short dresses,” says Rajan. Bollywood’s influence is inescapable.
The circus owners, too, want a whiff of the film industry in their business. “Look at how sponsor money has changed Indian films. We should be recognised as an industry, like the film industry,” says Ajay Shankar, joint secretary of the Indian Circus Federation. He already has ITC’s Candyman as a sponsor for publicity.
There are contrasts with films, too. “You can change the story in films, but not the script in a circus. Films are an illusion; the circus is reality,” Shankar signs off.