By Vivek Prakash
There are a couple of stories I’ve been waiting to do since I heard that I’d be moving to India last year. Maybe it’s part nostalgia, part fascination, but I’m happy to be able to interpret these stories visually, finally.
The last time I was at a circus was some twenty-five years ago. My father brought me to the Bandra Reclamation in Mumbai to see it. I can’t remember which one it was, maybe the Apollo Circus? I remember the smell of fresh dirt and popcorn. There were fireworks. There was a dome where three people on motorbikes rode on the walls without crashing into each other. There were big cats; lions and tigers with some jumping through flaming hoops. I was wide-eyed and thrilled. I’ve dreamed of seeing and photographing that show for years.
Twenty-five years later, I came to the very same location, with a camera in hand. When the Rambo Circus pitched tent, I jumped at the chance to spend a few days documenting what Indian circuses are like. This place has been in my imagination for so long.
The performers and artists live in tents all around the giant performing tent. It’s been air-conditioned and fire-proofed now – a tactic designed to keep the dwindling audience numbers interested. India has changed a lot since I last sat ringside, now people are used to their creature comforts and safety.
I photographed the lead clown and his assistants as they got dressed and put on their make-up. I spent long hours chatting with them about what circus life was like over a cup of chai. It’s still old-fashioned and beautiful, they wear brightly colored, if dated, clothing and still let out a big clown smile when they are all made-up and ready for an act.
There are a range of performers – not just clowns, but acrobats, marksmen, animal trainers and their animals. Some performers have come from as far as Uzbekistan and Ethiopia to be part of Rambo’s two-hour extravaganza.
Performers walk tip toe on poles high above the circus ring; there are trapeze artists who perform in the dark wearing glow-in-the-dark clothing. There are performers who ride upside down on horses and others who do acrobatic stunts in a hoop which an elephant holds on its trunk.
I loved the color and the noise. The smell of the popcorn and dirt was still there, as were the amazing performances and slapstick comedy.
Looking around the tent on weekdays, I felt a little sad to see that the plastic seats were mostly empty. India has moved on. People are now sitting in air-conditioned multiplexes in malls watching movies from cushioned seats.
The owner of the circus told me that since India got tough with its animal rights laws, they haven’t been able to use monkeys, lions or tigers in the show; it’s made it difficult.
It shows that India is developing – for good in many ways. We can’t enlist wild animals in circuses like we once used to. But I can see why the audiences don’t come in such large numbers any more – the child in me wanted to see a lion or a tiger leap through a flaming hoop once again. I guess dogs just don’t have the same majesty, talented as they are.
The circus had the general sense of something that was going to disappear in the coming decade.
As I write, it occurred to me that many of the pictures that my colleague Danish Siddiqui and I have shot this year deal with a fast-disappearing India as the country marches on without looking over its shoulder to see what’s being left behind. We’ve photographed traveling rural tent cinemas where audience numbers are in decline, villages where there aren’t enough women for men, people who say they have been dispossessed of their land for nuclear power plants and steel factories.
Will the circus go the same way? As optimistic as I’d like to be about it, I know I’ll be surprised if the great Indian circus lasts more than a decade – or even a few years – in its present form.
So let me make an invitation to you, if you are ever in India, track down a circus near you and go and see it – you’ll make the owners happy, and get to see something that might not last too much longer, a last gasp of the faded glory that was pre-liberalization India.