Watch Out For The Kolkata Based ‘Russian Empire Circus’ Which Has Set Its Tent In Bhubaneswar!
The crowd along the road swelled to see the decorated vehicle announcing its arrival over a loudspeaker. The excitement was palpable. The circus was coming to the town. It was a grand spectacle that paraded a plethora of wild animals tamed by the whip of the ringmaster and included daring acrobatics, never-ending juggling sequences and the joker act. People jostled for space near the brightly coloured big top tent that paled everything around.
The present, however, belies the rosy past. The once popular circus is in tatters. The worn-out tent, the faded plastic red chairs and the dented billboards that urgently require a fresh coat of paint speak volumes about its dwindling fate. With little innovation in acts and infrastructure, it looks lost amid the boom in entertainment avenues.
In the changed scenario, a handful of circus companies now left in India are literally struggling to survive. Most of them are suffering losses and many are just about breaking even. As manager of Empire Circus Suraj Barbhuiya puts it, “It is only a matter of time before we are forced to shut up shop.”
The 56-year-old Kolkata-based company has pitched its tent at Janata Maidan. A small signage at the entrance to the ground with Russian Empire Circus written in bold is all that announces its presence in the city. The excitement is missing and so is the crowd.
Circus artistes feel their profession is no longer roaring with life because they are not permitted to keep wild animals. “The popularity of circus hinged on animal acts. Lions, tigers, leopards and bears were instrumental in attracting crowds. The cheer was the loudest when they took the centre stage. With them gone, the circus too has become an endangered species,” says Ramesh, the juggler.
According to Barbhuiya, the central government ban on the use of wild animals in 1997 was the first peg on its coffin. The subsequent Supreme Court verdict banning children from performing at circuses in 2011 left the 136-year-old industry gasping for breath.
Wild animals being made to jump through rings of fire have been replaced over the years by artistes from foreign countries. “In the 1990s, there were close to 300 circuses. The number has now dipped to about 30, a massive 90% drop. Daring harness acts by three Russian artistes are the main attraction this year. African artistes were a big draw last year,” says Barbhuiya.
The country from where these artistes hail from precedes the company’s name during that particular year. “We are travelling as Russian Empire Circus this year. It is an attempt to fill the entertainment vacuum and woo the circus enthusiasts,” he says.
However, the jaded performance leaves those who choose to watch the two-hour show disappointed. “The curb on recruiting children in circus has dealt a body blow to the profession. We have to make do with the available workforce. The local artistes are not keen to take too many risks. Following the shortage in performers, we also had to do away with several acts,” says Barbhuiya.
Local artistes are hired on contract for a short while at a monthly salary of Rs 8,000 to Rs 10,000 and often choose to move on.
The 29 acts currently being performed by the artistes of Empire Circus include aerial tricks, jugglery and bicycle stunts. In shiny costumes, the artistes swing and swirl from the top, twist their flexible bodies like melted wax and climb ropes performing gravity-defying acts. They walk on pointed nails, broken glasses and sword. The daring stops at the ‘Globe of Death’ in which the riders loop inside a wire mesh sphere.
The clowns, who once offered were a source of amusement for patrons and provided relief from the array of performances by acrobats, look weary. The painted faces fail to hide the sorry state of affairs. The circus was an escape route to a respectable life for the dwarfs. However, the present holds out no promise for a better future for them. “We enjoy performing to a full house. We feel demotivated when the audience turn out is not encouraging. It gets reflected in our performances,” says Manish, an acrobat.
The troupe has five elephants, 10 dogs and seven foreign birds, including macaw and cockatoo. The acts here too are repetitive.
The dull interior does little to pep up the show. A raised round platform, pallid screens, red plastic chairs, wooden benches – little has changed over the years. “While the acts lack freshness, the amenities leave a lot to be desired. The children feel restless inside the imposing tent with a few pedestal fans. In the name of toilet, there is just a tin cover. The circus is fast losing ground to air-conditioned malls and fun-filled amusement parks,” says Jasmine Rout, a parent.
Barbhuiya says they are aware of the gaps, but their hands are tied. “The fund crunch has forced us to cut short much of the pomp once associated with the art. We make money only at fairs, where the crowd invariably make way to circus, and during Durga Puja,” he says.
Despite the 30% dip in business, the company is determined to keep the dying art alive. “There are people who have been working in the circus for generations and make their living from it. We are running the show for them,” he adds.
The company comprises 175 members, including 50 artistes from Bihar, Odisha, Assam, West Bengal and Manipur. The supporting staff put up tents and carry out other maintenance work.
The last performance of the troupe in the city is on September 6. The tickets for three shows at 1 pm, 4 pm and 7 pm are priced at Rs 60, Rs 100 and Rs 150/Rs 200.
The show is on, but with odds stacked against it, it is hard to say for how long.