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The bygone era of circus

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K S S Pillai
During a visit to my native village after a long gap, I was puzzled by the changes that had taken place there. It had grown into a small city with multiple facilities. Buildings with thatched or tiled roofs had given way to posh concrete bungalows with swank cars in their garages.
Compound walls with fancy designs had replaced hedges of wild bushes that provided us with sour-and-sweet fruits while returning from the school. Land sharks had gobbled up and resold all vacant plots.
The vast open land near my high school had also disappeared. It used to be the heartbeat of the village for a month every year when a circus company occupied it. A giant canvas tent called the ‘big top’ would be raised there. There would be cages of wild animals like lions, tigers, bears, and monkeys, and the quarters of the artistes close to them. A stable would accommodate the horses.
A bullock cart would go through the streets of the village and surrounding areas with someone announcing through a loudspeaker the timing and the items one could expect in the circus. The only cinema house in the village that showed Tamil movies most of the time and half a dozen or so in Malayalam every year would be worried about the thin attendance of the audience during the period.
Hardly anyone missed the circus show that provided live performances by the animals, children and other artistes in glittering costumes. The three-hour show would begin with a parade by all artistes, moving in tune with music from the orchestra. A plethora of items would follow. Pretty girls would ride on monocles.
One would ride a horse, standing on its bare back. Another artiste would gallop through the arena standing on his legs placed on two horses. Tigers would jump through fire hoops. A bear would ride on a motorcycle, and monkeys dressed like men and women would act like human beings. A fierce lion would stand on a stool and disobey the trainer’s command, who would then make the beast obey him by acting as if he was going to use his whip. We came to know later that the ‘disobedience’ was orchestrated to make the show breathtaking! An elephant would lift its front legs and walk on the rear ones when commanded by its trainer.
Small girls and boys would walk on a tightrope and do other balancing acts. Jugglers and clowns would appear at intervals exhibiting their skills. There would also be a performance by boys and girls with deformities like having four legs.
The most awaited item would be the trapeze act, performed high above the ground with or without a safety net below. Artistes, both male and female, would swing from the bar of the trapeze, fly through the air and grip the hands of another one hanging from the other swing.
Free passes to the costliest seats would be issued to officials of the local government, police and others whose cooperation was essential for the smooth conduct of the shows. Shops selling groceries, vegetables, fish and meat also would have a hectic period.
The death-knell of the circus has sounded in many countries. Activists approached courts stating that cruelty was used while training wild animals and children. As the charm of viewing the circus disappeared in the absence of these two classes of performers, people stopped patronizing it. Others who hastened the untimely demise of the circus included the television, cinema, and social media platforms.
Although the new generation does not miss the magic of the circus, the oldies fondly remember the live and often risky entertainment provided by it for three hours. They would talk about the festive mood created by the circus and hope one day it would re-emerge.
(The author is a retired professor of English. A regular contributor to ‘Kashmir Vision’, his articles and short stories have appeared in several national and international publications)


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