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Folding the Tent: Kerala Circus Academy

Nisha P R (nichukomal@gmail.com) is a PhD candidate at Department of History, University of Delhi.

Merely three years after it came into being, the Kerala Circus Academy, the first circus academy in the country set up by the government of Kerala, is on the verge of closure due to lack of vision. If the government is serious about reviving this dying entertainment form, then a more concerted effort will have to be made.

Anyone familiar with the history of Indian circus should find it quite appropriate that the first state owned circus academy in the country was established in Thalassery, North Kerala. Most of the acrobats, trainers and entrepreneurs in Indian circus over the past century have hailed from this part of the world. The Kerala Circus Academy was inaugurated on 2 August 2010 and started functioning in a rented building at Chirakkuni. The  glaring irony lies in the fact that this building was a former  cinema theatre; cinema, an art form often blamed for the impending “death” of Indian circus industry. Hardly three years into operation, this circus academy is now heading towards a closure; a closure for good.[1]

History of Circus in India

Circus training centres, known as circus kalaris, came into existence in North Malabar in the late nineteenth century. The legendary circus guru, Keeleri Kunhikannan Teacher, considered as one of the forefathers of Indian circus, and his illustrious disciples, Mannan Teacher and M K Raman,  established circus kalaris where they trained men, women and children. Circus acrobatics in India is a blend of various physical cultures — the western with indigeneous martial art forms such as kalaripayatt and kusti, as formulated by these kalaris. These centres provided trained acrobats to circus companies around the world.[2]

In the latter half of the twentieth century some prominent circus entrepreneurs, such as Damodaran of Kamala Three Ring Circus and K Gopalan of Rayman circus, tried to establish circus training schools in various parts of the country. In the early 1950s, K Gopalan  established a physical training centre for circus acrobatics in Nagpur. It included a circus training centre and a zoo.[3] Damodaran, who was the owner of Asia’s biggest circus company had kept aside acres of land in Kathirur, Thalassery for his dream ‒ a circus college with a students’ hostel.[4] In an article published in the Mathrubhumi Illustrated Weekly in 1957, Damodaran spoke at length about the need for a circus university in Kerala. He visualised the university giving both academic and acrobatic education to circus people, so that they could perform better than the European circus artistes: “As the student advances in her academic education to get a university degree, she should also be advancing in her training practices till she attains a means of livelihood by being proficient in at least one of the acrobatic items”.[5] Unfortunately neither of these projects could be realised.  In 1957, Kandambulli Balan, author of the famous book Circus, also wrote about the need for a circus college putting forward a significant suggestion to include kalaripayatt and circus in the curriculum of Kerala Kalamandalam, which was in its formative stages.[6]

Establishment of Kerala Circus Academy

In 1992, for the first time the  government  initiated a project under the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) Thalassery centre to train children of people belonging to the circus community in sports and gymnastics. But the authorities stopped admitting these children from 2000 onwards.[7]  While the SAI authorities claimed that in the later years they stopped getting applications from the children of circus people, the circus community alleged that the seats meant for  their children were handed out to “well-offs” by the officials.[8] So the decision of the Kerala government to establish a circus academy in Thalassery was seen as a constructive move by many who had spent their prime time in rings and tents. But as pointed out earlier, the academy is on the verge of closing. The Express report cited above states that “no student from the state has shown interest in joining the institution”.

Established under the ministry of sports, the principal objective of the academy was to provide training in circus acrobatics to children below fourteen.[9] The chief executive officer (CEO) of the academy, M P Velayudhan, a retired deputy collector, says: “The aim was to select ten children from various circus companies and another ten from this locality. Applications for admission were called for in major Malayalam dailies. We received eleven applications and six people appeared for interview in May 2011. But none of them joined. Applications were called for twice again with almost no response”.[10] Velayudhan paraphrases the damning judgment of the former minister of sports: “Circus does not figure in any school syllabi. Nobody looks upon circus as a job. There seems to be no possibility for circus to go on as such.”[11]

Eventually the ten seats earmarked for pupils from the circus companies were duly filled, and the children have stayed on. There are six girls and four boys from different parts of India and Nepal in the academy ‒ four from Tamil Nadu, four from Assam and Bengal and one each from Bihar and Nepal. Interestingly all these children are from Jumbo, Gemini and Great Royal circuses ‒ controlled by the same promoters. In fact the present circus academy has been established by recasting a private endeavour which had been set up by this management sometime back for training children. Ajay Shankar, one of the owners of the Gemini group says: “I’d begun a training set up for children sometime back in 2008. We had about twenty five children as students. The expenditure became unmanageable, so I approached the then Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, with Achuthanandan as the Chief Minister, for help. Thus the government academy came into being”. He added that his company is bearing  thirty percent of the  expenses of the children (for dress, travel and sports), while the government is spending the rest, mostly on administration, though there is no formal  contract regarding this expense sharing arrangement. Hence, the Sports Minister M Vijayakumar categorically states that the Academy is completely a government-owned institution, and that there is no contract with any circus company.[12] A two page quasi-official note in Malayalam titled “Circus Academy, Thalassery” states that the Academy was inaugurated on 2 August 2010 by the government, and ten kids were admitted with the help of Gemini/Jumbo circus. The three instructors at the academy were also from Gemini/Jumbo Circus.  The note further stated that “according to the managing committee’s decision, children’s expenditure for food, uniform cloth and auto-rickshaw fare from hostel to school are borne by Gemini/Jumbo management from 02-08-10. This expenditure is reimbursed as per their claims.” Raghavan, one of the trainers said, “After turning fourteen these children would go back to Gemini circus”.[13]

 

Syllabi and Running of the Academy

That a successful  Academy has not evolved from this arrangement, and  that the other circus companies around the country and circus labour unions have not  been encouraged to collaborate with it, brings forth questions regarding the manner in which the institution is being run. The managing committee of the Academy is another glaring example of certain exclusions at work. An all-India trade union for circus workers called Indian Circus Employees’ Union, affiliated to the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), has been functioning in Thalassery for more than three decades.  The Circus Labour Union, registered in 1998, has also been functioning in the town. While not a single representative of any of these unions or circus workers’ community figures in the management committee, organisations such as the Circus Fans’ Association that exist only in paper have been included.[14]

Another important and interesting aspect regarding the establishment of the Kerala Circus Academy is that it came into being just seven months prior to the ban imposed by Supreme Court on 18 April 2011 on the employment of children under fourteen in a circus. The petitioner, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), had argued that the children in  circuses were subjected to exploitation, sexual abuse, bondage and servitude and proposed to notify circus as a “hazardous industry”. In an interview in 2013, the CEO of the Kerala Circus Academy said that he was unaware of the Supreme Court ban, and the representative of Bachpan Bachao Andolan  said that he did not know that such an Academy had  come into being while the litigation was in progress.[15]    

The curriculum committee which prepared the syllabus should have been constituted of experts, including circus artistes, academicians and activists. Unfortunately it is almost a replica of the managing committee. The syllabus stipulates the training time for children between “6 am to 8 am” in the morning and “4.30 pm to 7 pm” in the evening. Training is given in floor exercises (boys and girls), vaulting table (boys and girls), beam (girls), parallel bars (boys),  uneven bars (girls), high bars (boys), rings (boys) and pommel horse. Under the section “Jobs and Entertainment”, it lists “clowning (make up), jokes and entertainment”. The syllabus also caters to training in “tent preparation, different types of circus events, dress making, music, food preparation, jobs and entertainment (jokers), light and sound, animal circus, etc”.[16] Since no instruments and equipment were provided, the three trainers are instructing them in these floor exercises. “A list of instruments was prepared but it was not sent to the government. Only a hook for the “slanting wire” was made available”[17].

However, after their early morning trainings, children go to the Dharmadam Basic Upper Primary School, a Government aided school with Malayalam as the medium of instruction. The only logic why these children, who speak different languages, are taught in Malayalam medium seems to be that they are going to work in Malayali companies. This obviously limits their choices and opportunities in a wider world.

Apart from the three trainers, the two cooks are also retired circus artistes. The call for application by the collectorate, Kannur, titled “Wanted Circus Personnel”, specifies the qualifications of the “Administrator” as “A pass from the Gymnastics Institute or Technical Institute of Gymnastics” and experience as “10-15 years of administrative experience in a reputed circus company”; “Chief Trainer” should have a “Basic training certificate from the Circus Federation” and “Five years training experience in a reputed circus company” (Collectorate, Kannur, M6.45315/08(1), dated 06/05/09). The monthly salary of the trainers is six thousand and for the cooks five thousand. The CEO draws fifteen thousand monthly.[18] It should be noted here that while the jobs of cooks and trainers are given to the circus artistes, the high-level posts are taken by the political party leaders and retired government officials. Those familiar with the circus community know that the circus manager/program co-coordinator is an expert in management business. In March 2012, rupees one crore was released from the district collectorate treasury of which fifty lakh was spent[19]. The monthly expenditure for the academy is Rs one lakh.[20]

A Sport or an Art Form?

At Kundoormala, Thalassery, ten acres of land was considered as a site for creating permanent infrastructure for the circus academy. In the last meeting held at Thiruvananthapuram, it was suggested by the then Sports Minister Ganesh Kumar that the circus academy may function along with gymnastics and Kalaripayatt in the proposed Sports Complex at Mundayad, in Kannur district itself.[21] Other questions, such as whether it would come under the Sports Authority of India again were also raised. A significant proposal came from the Kerala Sangeetha Natak Academi chairman, Surya Krishnamurthi. He assured that all the current benefits granted by the Academi to drama artistes, such as pension, insurance, medical treatment and training places could be made available to circus artistes also. The chairman also proposed to attach the circus academy with Sangeet Natak Academi and develop it.[22] But nothing came out of these plans, since there was pressure from both the culture and sports ministries, says Krishnamurthi. He added, “Sports Ministry asserted that circus comes under sports and they are entitled for any move concerning it. But they don’t move and plus circus is not a sport, it’s an art[23].

This throws up the crucial problem of treating circus as a sport.[24] This renders invisible its complexities as a performing art with multiple layers. As in foreign circus academies, the children should have the opportunity to get professional training in band music, textile design, acrobatics, dance, tent technology and program management. Circus in India today is by no means region specific. “The government of India should think of setting up a school to teach circus art, preferably to be located in New Delhi, where boys and girls from all over India may be recruited and trained to become first grade circus stars, who may be in great demand throughout the world”, envisions the author of Circus in India: Its Problems, Solutions in the magazine Big Top (1965) published by the Circus Owners’ Federation (p.10). So instead of perceiving the school just as a physical training institute, the central government should take it up at the “national” level, as in the case of the National School of Drama, and establish an advanced centre for performance and physical culture.

Permanent circus theatres of Russia, Britain and America successfully host circuses during different seasons.  Such permanent circus theatres (could be made in the form of tents), at least in major cities, could be set up. The state can also give support to co-operative circus companies under its small-scale industry schemes. What I have gathered from my field work is that majority of the circus artistes and labourers do not want to send their children to circus companies because they want them to get educated and have better future. Another recurring complaint is regarding the exploitative and dangerous labour conditions. The government could arrange for the recruitment of students from its circus academies by circus companies around the world for jobs and internships under proper legal contracts.[25] This would not only help this art form to sustain but also help stamp out the stigma around it, to which the state and society have substantially contributed.

Notes

[1] “Kerala Circus Academy Thakarchayilekku [Kerala Circus Academy on the verge of ruin]”, Mathrubhumi Daily, 16t June 2013; Sucheth P R (2013):“Circus Academy: Doing a blindfolded tightrope walk”, The New Indian Express, 5t March, available at   http://www.newindianexpress.com/states/kerala/article1488902.ece (accessed on 7 January, 2014).

[2] For a detailed discussion see Nisha P R, “Performing Bodies, Physical Cultures: Looking at the Circus Kalaries in Malabar”, Social Science Probings, Vol.22, No.1, June 2010

[3] “Circus Vidhbhyasa Kendhram” [Circus Training Centre],  Mathrubhumi Illustrated Weekly, Book 30, Vol 34, Nov 9, 1952, pp 19-21

[4]Interview with Kamala, Seidarpalli, Thalassery, 30/07/12; Kamala is the daughter of Damodaran after whom he named his circus.

[5]Damodaran, Prof. K. “Keralathinoru Circus University [A Circus University for Kerala]”, p.31-33, 1957 July 28, vol. 35, issue 19, p 32 (my translation)

[6] “Keralavum circussum [Kerala and Circus]”, Mathrubhumi Illustrated Weekly, vol.34, issue51, 3 March 1957, p.19-22, 28 ; It’s worthwhile noting here that the State of  Kerala, that came into being in November 1956, incorporating Malabar, Kochi and Travancore provinces, was also being imagined at the time. This imagining of a homogenous ‘Malayali’ nation had been and still is a contentious process.  Balan’s proposal of placing circus, a modern vocation and livelihood of  mostly subaltern communities, especially women, along with Kathakali and Kalaripayaat, predominantly upper-caste Hindu traditional forms, therefore, has telling socio-political connotations.   

[7] Interview with Arun Kumar, gymnastics instructor, SAI, Thalassery, 23/06/2013

[8] Interview with Suniti, Ilayidathumukku, Thalassery, 14/05/12 and Leela, Melur, Thalassery, 06/12/11

[9] The government order regarding the establishment of the academy throws light on the fact that the idea was to open a museum along with it (Order no. 1419/09, dated 31/03/2009).

[10] Interview with M P Velayudhan, Kannur, June 16, 2013

[11] Velayudhan further adds, “In October when the new district collector took charge, a meeting was organised, and I had suggested that as in the sports training centres the timings of the training should be scheduled during evening and morning, so that there might be a chance of local students joining. This suggestion was approved by the managing committee. But only two students joined and they quit before the first week was over.” (Interview with Velayudhan, Kannur, June 16, 2013)

[12]Telephone Interview with Ajay Shankar, 05/10/13; Interview with M Vijayakumar, Thiruvananthapuram, 27/08/13.

[13]Interview with Ragahvan, Thalassery, 18/06/2013.

[14] The managing committee that has been constituted has the following members: The District Collector, Kannur;  President, Sports Council, Kerala State; Director, Sports and Youth Affairs, Executive Engineer (Buildings Division), PWD, Kannur; Deputy Collector (L.A), Kannur; President, Kannur District Sports Council represent the government. Asok Shanker, President, Indian Circus Federation, Kannur, Raghunath, Manager, Jumbo circus, Ajay Shanker, Gemini Circus, T I Zubire, Vice-President, Circus Fans’ Association. (Order no. 1222/09, dated 21/03/2009).

[15] Interview with M P Velayudhan, Kannur, June 16, 2013; Telephone interview with Bhuwan Ribhu of Bachpan Bachao Andolan,   25/08/13; Mr. Ribhu also informed that the Solicitor General’s report on the matter was submitted to the court in January 2010. Interestingly, in a proposed relief in this litigation dated 14/09/2009 submitted by the advocate of another NGO, Childline, it is stated that the Court may “direct the Sports Authority of India to set up a national/regional circus training academy for the training of children in India ‒ as most children of the circus come from Eastern India/ Nepal ‒ on the lines of the Kerala Circus Academy set up in Kerala, Thalassery Municipality, Kannur District by the Ministry of Sports of the Kerala Government.” M Vijayakumar, the minister of sports at the time of academy’s establishment, told me that the first meeting on the academy was held in 2008 (Interview with M Vijayakumar, Thiruvananthapuram 27/08/13). Note prepared for the meeting at the Sports Council, Trivandrum dated 05/09/2008, also shows a meeting was held on 13/03/08 and another on 26/06/08.

[16] From the syllabus submitted to the Managing Committee and later on to the government, dated 03/05/11.

[17] Interview with Raghavan, Kerala Circus Academy, 18/06/13

[18] It should be noted here that the present CEO is a retired bureaucrat and does not have any of the qualifications for the administrative post stipulated in the notification.

[19] Initially rupees twenty five lakh was released, and it is mentioned in the note prepared for the meeting at the Sports Council, Trivandrum dated 05/09/2008 that this amount will not be sufficient, so other funds from the MP and MLA funds should be utilised apart from those collected from the circus companies and self-governing establishments (Note for the meeting at the Sports Council, Trivandrum dated 05/09/2008).

[20] Interview with Velayudhan, Kannur, 16/06/2013

[21] See “Kerala Circus Academy Thakarchayilekku [Kerala Circus Academy on the Verge of Destruction]”, Mathrubhumi Daily, 16th June 2013. Also from the Interview with Velayudhan, Kannur, 16/06/2013.

[22] Interview with Surya Krishnamurthi, Thiruvananthapuram, 06/10/13

[23] Ibid

[24] Arun Kumar told me that there are circus items that involve gymnastic exercises. But they are not the same (Interview with Arun Kumar, gymnastics instructor, SAI, Thalassery, 23/06/2013).

[25]Most of the children of the circus people admitted in SAI have won national level medals, while some have won the international games (Interview with Dinesh, Accounts Officer, SAI, Thalassery, 24/06/13). Cultural exchange programs can take them across the national boundaries.  

 

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