India has a long tradition of street performers and artists who would move from town to town. However, circus is a fairly new industry. According to Philip Astley, an English circus master, the first Indian circus was born around 1880.

Great Indian CircusIts creator was Vishnupant Chatre. The first performance of Chatre’s Great Indian Circus was held on March 20, 1880 in the presence of a selected audience, including the Rajah of Kurduwadi. Chatre’s Great Indian Circus went on to travel extensively, first in the vast regions of North India, then further south, to the large east-coast city of Madras, and down to the Island of Ceylon. Keeleri Kunhikannan trained acrobats of Great Indian Circus. In 1901, Kunhikannan opened a bona-fide circus school in Chirakkara, a village near the city of Kollam. Thus, Kerala came to be known as the Cradle of Indian Circus.
Started by K. Damodaran, who had begun his career traveling from village to village with a small two-pole tent in the early 1930s, before ending with a giant American-style six-pole, three-ring circus, the very first of its kind in Asia.
One of the oldest circus troupes in India, the Great Royal Circus dates its origins to 1909, when it was known as Madhuskar’s Circus; in the 1970’s, when it was taken over by N. R. Walawalker, it became the Great Royal Circus. Narayan Rao Walawalker, an animal trainer, made it one of the very few Indian Circuses that have toured internationally—traveling in Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Asia.
and Amar
The Great Rayman Circus is one of the oldest circus companies in India, founded in 1920 by Kalian Gopalan, a disciple of Keeleri Kunhikannan, and one of the great Indian showmen of that period. In times, Kalian Gopalan built a circus empire that comprised, the National Circus and the Bharat Circus among others. The Amar Circus, which Gopalan created in the 1960s, is still active to this day, and was recently under the management of K. R Hemraj.
Baburao Kadam founded the Grand Bombay Circus in 1920. It toured initially in Sindh and Punjab, now provinces of Pakistan. K. M. Kunhikannan, Keeleri Kunhikannan’s nephew and a versatile artist who created the Whiteway and Great Lion circuses, merged his two companies with the Grand Bombay Circus in 1947— which was renamed Great Bombay Circus.
The Gemini Circus was created in 1951, in Billimoria, a town in the State of Gujarat, by circus entrepreneur Moorkoth Vangakandy Shankaran a native of Tellicherry, Kerala, and the son of a schoolteacher. After service in the Indian Army during WWII, Shankaran joined M. K. Raman’s circus school in Chirakkara, and became an aerialist and gymnast on horizontal bars.
In 1964, Gemini Circus became the First Indian Circus to attend the International Circus Festival in USSR. They held shows at Moscow, Sochi and Yalta. Gemini Circus also became the backdrop of many Indian movies such as Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker.
A young daredevil, Gopalan Mulloli started his small circus company the village of Zeera, in Punjab, in 1958. His circus was named after his son, Raj, and his wife, Kamala, by combining their names into Rajkamal. The Rajkamal Circus steadily grew in importance and made extensive tours in India visiting its largest cities, and later in the countries of the Gulf. It is today one of the largest circuses of India.
M. V. Shankaran’s Jumbo Circus, “The Pride of India,” opened its doors on October 2, 1977, in Dhanapur, in the state of Bihar (in Eastern India). It is probably the best known, and the largest circus in India – a modern enterprise that, since its inception, had included a important traveling menagerie.
Rambo Circus was created by P.T.Dilip in 1991, out of the fusion of four old Indian circuses: Oriental Circus, Arena Circus, Victoria Circus, and Fantasy Circus. Rambo Circus has toured India extensively and also the Middle Eas.

Circus: A Marginal Industry

  • By and large, Indian circus entrepreneurs have also maintained the belief that there are “secrets of the trade” in the training of circus acrobats and circus animals, which has certainly contributed to the dubious reputation of an industry that is often seen as marginal, and not well adapted to the modern world.
  • Today, the traditional Indian circus suffers from a sharp decline in attendance, while foreign circus companies visiting the region, or traveling with Indian circuses, still attract a large public.
  • The biggest problem is in getting the artistes, who require constant and vigorous training from a very young age.
  • Circus is widely seen as a dangerous profession. So most families, even those who find it difficult to make both ends meet, are unwilling to send their young ones to join it.
  • This is perhaps why there are no true circus dynasties of performers in India: Circus performing seems to be perceived as a refuge for society’s leftovers.
  • The Government has passed a law forbidding circuses to employ children under 14 years of age, placing children performers under the same protection as in other industries.

Possible Remedies

  • The opening of Indian Circus Academy at Thalassery in 2010 was a step in the right direction. Sadly, the academy is on the verge of closure due to less number of trainees and financial constraints. However, some other possible remedies for the revival of Circus Industry could be:
    • An increased emphasis on the safety regulations and strict enforcing of the same would help in improving the perception of circus as a career opportunity.
    • Circus can be used to promote the dying arts among the masses. This would also increase the attraction quotient of the circuses.
    • Government protection for the circus performers and the companies would also help in reviving the dying industry. Most artists retire by the age of 40, after which they have to work as manual labourers. Security and compensation for them is a necessity.
    • Presently circuses are under the ambit of the Department of Sports and Youth Affairs. Bringing it under the Ministry of Culture would help in strategising better for its revival. It would also be an acknowledgement of circus as an art form.

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