Although the circus has primarily been understood as having developed in the West—its historical roots being traced to ancient Greece with their hippodromes and chariot racing, and ancient Rome with their coliseums and gladiator fights—in truth, Eastern traditions of public and travelling entertainment did cross-pollinate with Western modes to influence their development. From troubadours to carnivals in Europe, and snake charmers to rope-walking in India, the circus arts have a long history and draw in fact, from many rich traditions.
In the 18th century, Phillip Astley, known as the ‘father of the modern circus’, was the first to develop an integrated entertainment experience in the form of the traditional circus, with acrobatic and military equestrian displays that were performed in a ring. Performed at his riding school, known as Astley’s Amphitheatre in London, these circuses (although he never used the term circus himself) also featured a series of independent physical acrobatic numbers, jugglers, with comic relief provided by clowns and dancing dogs in between acts.
The first circus following this format in India, is traced one century later, to the endeavours of Vishnupant Chatre, who commanded the stables of the Rajah of Kurduwadi. Legend has it that both Chatre and the Rajah had once gone to see the Royal Italian Circus where Chiarini, an Italian director performed. Though Chatre was greatly impressed by the performance, he was apparently piqued by a comment made by Chiarini that India, was not ready to have a circus of its own at that point in time, and would possibly take another decade to reach such a stage.
Thus, Vishnupant Chatre decided to organize his own circus, in which he was the star equestrian, and his wife performed as a trapeze artist and animal trainer. The first performance of Chatre’s Great Indian Circus was held on March 20, 1880 in the presence of a selected audience which included the Rajah. Following the model of Chiarini, 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 (today’s Chennai), and down to the Island of Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka). He is also said to have taken his circus abroad to the United States of America and returned, unable to vie with the scale and standard of the grand American circuses, but little record of this exists today. At any rate, he continued to tour India, in the course of which he made the acquaintance of Keeleri Kunhikannan, a martial arts proponent and teacher in Thalassery (Tellicherry), Kerala.
Chatre asked Kunhikannan, who showed a keen interest in the circus, to train acrobats for his Great Indian Circus—which Kunhikannan began to do in 1888 at a kalari (Indian martial-arts facility) in the village of Pulambil. In 1901, Kunhikannan opened a bonafide circus school in Chirakkara, a village near the city of Kollam, and began a long career of churning out students who opened several circuses, earning him the moniker ‘Father of the Indian Circus’ and Kerala the title, ‘Cradle of the Indian Circus’.
Among the many circuses that were initiated by his students, was the Great Rayman Circus by Kallan Gopalan. Having worked there with him for a time, circus entrepreneur Moorkoth Vangakandy Shankaran (popularly known as Gemini Shankarettan), a native of Tellicherry himself, in association with another circus entrepreneur, K. Sahadevan, instituted in 1951 one of India’s oldest circuses today — the Gemini Circus.
The Gemini Circus, alongside extensive performances abroad in the USSR, built a strong reputation in the country, a popular following, andt ties with the Indian film industry — serving as the backdrop in many popular movies such as Raj Kapoor ‘s Mera Naam Joker, Mithun Chakraborty’s Shikari, and Kamala Hassan’s Apoorva Sahodarangal.
“In our home there were four brothers. The first and the fourth were tall. The second and the third were small. There was very little at home and we used to make people laugh so they brought us here.” — Tulsi and Baswarf Brotant, Dhers, Clowns, The Famous Circus, Calcutta, 1989 (qtd. from Indian Circus, Mary Ellen Mark)
For its audience, the circus is a world of magic and spectacle, but for performers, a career in the circus often brings with it a nomadic, lonely life that is only lightened by the rigours of their practice and the company of each other. The everyday truths of circus life that lie in a reality, far removed from the glitter and glamour of the ring have formed a particular subject of interest for many photographers in the past.
It is indeed, impossible to write of documenting circus life without talking of the most renowned of these photographers, Mary Ellen Mark, and her famed Indian Circus. Mary Ellen Mark devoted six months to photographing eighteen circuses in India, following them around the continent in 1989 and 1990. To her circuses embodied “a poetry and a craziness that are still uncorrupted, and honest, and pure” — and her photographs sought to capture this poignant innocence and bizarre life.
Drawing upon this tradition, Vivek Muthuramalingam began photographing the Gemini Circus in 2006. His photographs include not only portraits of performers and gritty narratives about life in the circus, but also in many instances, self-reflexively address the nature of things behind the curtain and the stage. Everyday life in the circus is bound with time, with narratives of ageing performers and animals certainly, but also time as repetition, ritual, routine; time as oscillating between practice and performance, with little rest and respite. Echoing this, Muthuramalingam begins his note on the project thus: “The peppery odour of Elena’s mysterious perfume never failed to bring a smile on our faces as we paced towards her little tin shack at the far end of the circus camp. I knew that this meant a few minutes of welcome break from the shoot and perhaps, another animated conversation with Elena herself; a rare occasion when there was plenty of time to spare before her act.”
Capturing moments of performers in the wings, and life under the awning and tents of reality, away from the grandeur of their performances, Muthuramalingam, highlights the intersections between play and work, leisure and livelihood, joy and pain, and the everyday and the surreal that life in the circus embodies.
“I was allowed to document a magic fantasy that was, at the same time, all so real. It was full of ironies, often humorous and sometimes sad, beautiful and ugly, loving and at times cruel, but always human.” — Mary Ellen Mark, Indian Circus