On tour: The Royal Italian Circus, Bombay, 1879

Circus Diaries

Reading Time: 7 minutes

My phone screen reads:
Shernaz Patel …

After the call my mind is buzzing.

Thoughts, Memories. People. Ideas. Sketches. Names. Spaces. A cacophony of unrealised projects — Marit in Oslo … Rita Rose from Goa … Naresh, Umesh, Poems, the Norwegian Script … Photos … Documents … Personal archives … Papers … lots of papers, old papers, newspapers … a sweater stained in blood, Janaki,
Pune, Hans, an elephant … circ … the CIRCUS !

The Book Cover

I am sitting in the Prithvi Cafe with Geetanjali Kulkarni. I have requested her to read out some chapters from a book written in Marathi to me. She has graciously agreed to help. I give her the book. She looks at the cover.
Circus … Circus! Shyamala Shirolkar.

She opens the book —

Giuseppe Chiarini’s the Royal Italian Circus, one of the first modern circuses to have travelled to India, puts up a splendid show at the Cross Maidan in Bombay.

The show is attended by several Indian dignitaries and is inaugurated by the erstwhile Governor of Bombay, Richard Temple.

On tour: The Royal Italian Circus, Bombay, 1879

The audience is left spell bound by the superlative performance. Chiarini senses the mood, and rather patronizingly addresses the gathering after the performance:

Giuseppe Chiarini

“Good Evening Ladies and Gentlemen !
I am Mr Giuseppe Chiarini from Italy. I am the proprietor of this circus. I thank the Government of Great Britain for permitting us to come here and conduct the show. I am given to understand that there is no circus in India, and I know that Indians would have to wait many, many years to establish such a circus.

I am a world famous equestrian. I trained these horses. I challenge anyone in India to train horses to perform like mine do. If anyone is able to do this I am prepared to offer a reward of one thousand British Indian rupees, and any of these horses. I give you six months to achieve this! Come forward. Any one can try!

I am at writer Shyamala Shirolkar’s house. Her daughter Janaki Morey pulls out several cartons full of documents, newspaper cuttings, photographs – research material collected over decades by Shirolkar. Janaki allows me to sit on the bed and go through the archive.

Shyamala Shirolkar’s notes

She asks me what I plan to do. I tell her about my vague plans of wanting to write/direct a play. She is pleased. She wants to know if I know anyone who could carefully archive this material in some kind of a National Archive? I am unable to help her even though I understand the value of what I see before me. She goes into the kitchen.

When I am done for the day, she offers me tea. She talks about how her mother Shyamala travelled all over the country, meeting circus owners and performers, and even staying with them in their tents, to observe their lives. She went to numerous libraries, corresponded with various people through letters, wrote to international circus organisations, and asked her friends travelling abroad to bring her whatever material on circuses they could lay their hands on there. “It became her life”, Janaki says.

I sense grudging admiration.

I look at the cartons one last time before I leave. A life-time’s work … in waiting …

A circus is being set up at a huge ground near the Chakan-Talegaon Road, near Pune. Set-ups are not glamorous. I am reminded of theatre set-ups. People are sweating, they are busy. Anyone who is not busy, is a misfit. I get curious glances. Some women smile at me. The manager allows me to speak to the artists.

I sit in R’s tent. She is a middle aged Nepali woman. She says she was barely 8 when she became a “company girl” i.e. joined the Circus, through an agent in Nepal at a salary of Rs 2 per month. “It has gone up to 5000 now”, she quickly adds. She speaks three international languages. She is a juggler, a cyclist and a Mithun fan, she blushes as she reveals. She is married to the Manager. Most women artists marry within the circus, she says D applies a mixture of Ponds powder, Boroline, bronzer, zinc oxide on his face.


He is the oldest clown in the troupe. He is from Kolhapur. He talks to me about the importance of comic timing. He wakes up at 5am everyday. The first circus he ever saw was the Walawalker Circus in 1967 and since then all he wanted to be was a clown. His knee hurts today, he tells his friend in Marathi

I am sitting in a grungy rest-o-bar in Pune. The circus manager, N, has promised me an interview. I wait awkwardly as he orders a drink for himself and a friend of his who does not speak to me through the course of the meeting. When they speak to each other they do so in Marathi. N is curious about my work. By now he knows I am neither a journalist nor from an animal/human rights’ NGO. He relaxes with a drink

He tells me that girls are most flexible when they are 8 or 9 years old. ‘Like any other sport, circus acts have to be learnt when young. The Government abolished child labour and no one thought of circuses’, he says. I wonder why he chooses this theme as the ice breaker.

‘Then they took away our animals’. He talks about the golden period. He talks about live orchestras, Goan and Bengali musicians who travelled with the circus. Saxophone, trumpet, violin, flute – he names some of the instruments as he asks for a refill, with a nostalgic smile.

“How is the circus holding out despite everything … I mean do you still have an audience ?” I blurt out the question that I have been itching to ask. He gulps down his drink and reaches for a tissue. I waste no time in giving him a pen. He draws and explains – ‘Look it’s simple. Our main performing circuit is not the big cities, it is the smaller towns and villages. In many villages in India there is no other form of public entertainment.

Not even a cinema hall ! We set up our tent there for a month or two and all weekend shows are house full. 5000 seats houseful for three shows a day at 100 Rs a seat. Do the calculation.”

He smiles and orders another drink. He goes on to explain the difference in payment between Indian, Russian and African performers. He talks about caste and gender hierarchies within the circus; Not in those words. He talks of goons, matrons, abuse, alcohol, art and industry – all in the same breath. He talks of paid newspaper reviews, corrupt police officers. He gives me a top to bottom structure of the circus management. He wants to speak more but now he is slurring. He mutters something to his friend in Marathi.

At this point I interrupt him and offer to pay the bill. “I must return to my friend’s house. It is quite late.” I thank him for his time and frankness. While leaving I tell him that I understand Marathi.

I watch the matinee show. I watch R in her green cycling shorts and D wearing the bronzer makeup. While watching them perform, I can’t tell the differences in their salaries, caste or religion. Like seasoned theatre artists, that is all they are on stage –  artists playing their parts.

I watch the Rambo Circus as they celebrate the World Circus Day at Prithvi Theatre. I speak to Sujit, the circus owner, about my play. He shows interest in the collaboration. I leave it at that. I have no funds for the play yet.

I experience my first anxiety attack gifted to many of us by the pandemic. I can’t make sense of anything. Why do we do what we do ? Why should we continue ? For whom ? And how ? The purposelessness of an intangible pursuit like ours hits me for the first time. I refuse to believe in it … but I have no answers. I can’t make sense of the online world either. The word ‘technology’ reminds me of my B.Tech degree.
I can’t move.

Our theatre company Studio Tamaasha launches its online space. We have three big events lined up this month.

My phone screen reads:
Shernaz Patel …

Shernaz mentions about the play that I had pitched to her last year. She asks me if I would write a blog for TheatreInk. After the call my mind is buzzing … the CIRCUS!

I am reminded of the protagonist of the play, Vishnupant Chhatre, the creator of the Indian Circus

Studio Tamaasha’s Online Events

Giuseppe Chiarini’s challenge at Cross Maidan is met with stunned silence. One man breaks the silence and speaks in a strong and steady voice:

Vishnupant Chhatre

Mr Giuseppe Chiarini,
I am Vishnupant Moreshwar Chhatre, a humble horse trainer. I wish to accept your challenge. We Indians are very grateful to you and the people of Italy for granting us an opportunity to watch such a great show like yours. But I say to you, my horses can do every thing your horses did today, perhaps even better. And, I do not need six months to train them. I will do it in three months only. 

I have more to say. You said that we Indians will take many years to make a circus such as yours. I promise we will have our own circus within a year.”

On Christmas day, just like Vishnupant had promised, The Great Indian Circus – the first Circus of India, is launched at the Palace grounds of Kurundwad Palace, inaugurated by the then Governor of Bombay, James Fergusson.

I am in our office. As part of Studio Tamaasha’s online programming, we have two podcasts to stream at 2pm and 6pm today. I have squeezed time in between and booked myself a ticket for an online show of the Rambo Circus at 4pm.

Rambo Circus - Online

As I watch the impressive presentation, my thoughts wander off to R from Nepal and D from Kolhapur. I wonder where they are. What is happening to  circuses during these times ? Will all of them find their new homes online ? How ? I remember N’s tissue drawing with the hierarchical structure of the circus. Will the new digital structuring break those hierarchies?

As the show credits roll, I think of Shyamala Shirolkar and I am reminded of the faith and commitment of those who believe in ideas. I am reminded of those who believe in people, like the King of Kurundwad did when he supported Vishnupant.

But what I am most reminded of are inventive, adaptive, versatile artists. Artists who have always continued re-discovering and changing in order to survive. It seems to me that the primary nature of an artist is to adapt in response to a challenge. Like the classical musicians who adapted to the 3-minute gramophone recordings, or the performing artists today who are adapting to the digital transformation. I am reminded of artists like Keeleri Kunjikannan, Damu Dhotre, Sushila Sundari, Vishnupant Chhatre and his wife and all the Rs and Ds of Indian circus who remain anonymous to this day.

Sushila Sundari

I am reminded of perseverance, idealism and courage.
I am reminded of an unwritten play.

As I begin to host the 6pm podcast … I am reminded of hope.

– Sapan Saran

About Sapan Saran

Sapan Saran is a poet, playwright and theatre director based in Mumbai. She is a founding member of the theatre company, ‘Tamaasha’. She also runs ‘Studio Tamaasha’, an intimate curated performing arts centre in Mumbai.

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