The Great Bengali Circus

The great Bengali Circus – Live entertainment par excellence

January 9, 2014

Winter is the time of festivities. In a country like India, where it is hot most of the year, the brief few months of the cold season is a time for festivities. Attending fairs and festivals, going on picnics, or just basking in the sun, staying outdoors is enjoyed by most. Another thing associated with winter in India is circus.

All over the country, it is mostly in winter when circuses travel from city to city, town to town, with their acrobats, jugglers, jokers, stuntmen and -women, and various other entertainers. For children as well as grown-ups, a good circus can be wholesome entertainment; live entertainment, often much more enjoyable than seeing on television.

Trapeze artistes give a sublime performance

The circus in Bengal

Circus shows, as we know it today, began in Bengal at almost the same time as when Vishnupant Chhatre started his shows, in fact, in 1881. In that year, Nabagopal Mitra, a playwright, poet, essayist and patriot (he was instrumental in organising Jatiya Melas (National Exhibitions), held annually to promote indigenous manufacturers), started the National Circus Company in Kolkata. It played a pioneering role in the circus scene in India, so long dominated by the visiting European circus companies.

Nabagopal’s act spread the culture of acrobatics, gymnastics and physical culture in India. Ram Chandra Chatterjee, the pioneer balloonist and parachutist from Kolkata, began his career as an acrobat (he was a flying trapeze player) at the National Circus. Later he became the director of Great United Indian Circus Company.

Another circus pioneer from Bengal was Priyanath Bose. His Great Bengal Circus, founded in 1887, was a household name in late-19th and early-20th century Bengal. There were American, German, Russian and French artists in his circus. Even women used to take part. An American called Gus Burns was hired to work with tigers and lions.

Among the other famous circuses of Bengal were Great Ringling Circus of SK Guha and Baby Day Circus, which came into the field during the second decade of the 20th century.

Priyanath Bose, a pioneer of circus in Bengal

It is interesting to note that Satyajit Ray mentions some of the details about Priyanath Bose’s circus in the Feluda adventure, Chhinamaster Abhishap. The narrator Topshe mentions that Lalmohan Babu wanted to set his next story in a circus and so had started reading a book called The Circus in Bengal. It was from this book that he gleans the facts for Topshe.

The most famous depiction of circus in Hindi films is perhaps in Mera Naam Joker. It was directed by Raj Kapoor and also starred him as the title character of the joker. The 4-hour-15-minute-long life story of Raju the joker was released in 1970. It had a lot of beautiful songs, including ‘Jane Kahan Gaye Woh Din’, ‘Jeena Yahan Marna Yahan', and ‘Ae Bhai Zara Dekh Ke Chalo’.

Raj Kapoor immortalised the circus clown in cinema with his portrayal of Raju

Some of India’s major circuses now are

  • Great Royal Circus
  • Great Rayman Circus
  • Amar Circus
  • Great Bombay Circus
  • Gemini Circus
  • Rajkamal Circus
  • Jumbo Circus
  • Rambo Circus
  • Famous Circus
  • Ajanta Circus

Jumbo Circus, one of the best known circuses in India

A member of the Kilimanjaro Acrobats troupe at Great Bombay Circus

Problems facing the circus industry

However, despite the illustrious lineage, circuses in India are facing a very difficult time.

  • Lions, tigers, panthers, bears and monkeys are banned from being used in performances, which has left circus owners struggling to find new and innovative ways to entertain the audiences.
  • After reports of abuse and bonded labour of children, the Supreme Court in 2011 banned circus owners from using children in performances. This has denied the industry young and fresh talent for the future.
  • Circuses used to be a cheap form of entertainment for everyone, with a wide range of ticket prices to suit families from all economic backgrounds. But, they have been facing tough competition from digital forms of entertainment.
  • Attendance at circuses, which once were a major form of mass entertainment, have dropped drastically leaving the owners struggling financially.
  • Owners say that it is getting more and more difficult to attract new performers to the profession, so they have to hire foreign talent. But hiring foreign talent takes a lot of money too, which all owners don’t have.

A Russian performer at Jumbo Circus

The tent of Rambo Circus, with a placard advertising its shows

The circus scene in Kolkata

The scene in Kolkata is not too different from the rest of the country. The Park Circus Maidan is the hub of circus acts in the city; in fact, it has been a seat of circuses since the British era. But over the last few years, the number of troupes setting up tent has gone down. Things have looked up slightly this year, though.

Ajanta Circus started its shows in December, and is slated to perform till the first week of February. The troupe of 300 includes a band of 11 gymnasts from Russia and Africa. The animal attractions consist of elephants, horses, dogs and exotic birds. Kolkata Municipal Corporation wants to bring circus back to Park Circus. The city’s annual winter spectacle is back, and things would hopefully improve in the future. The more people come, the more money the troupes would earn, and this would help them survive.

Trapeze artistes of Ajanta Circus perform at the Park Circus Maidan

Parting thought

The live all-round entertainment that circuses provide is really unique, and the same effect cannot happen by watching circus acts or acrobatic displays on TV, however good they may be. It is very similar to watching matches in a stadium: one just has to experience the adrenalin rush of live action to know how different and infinitely more exciting a live performance can be.

Written by Anushtup Haldar for Team

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Comments (2)
Sounak Reply
January 09, 2014
I didnt know earlier that Bengal was a pioneer in circus in india
Koel Reply
January 09, 2014
I love the circus. Every winter i visit a circus with my family..
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