NEW DELHI: When the curtain rose for the first show of Asiad Circus, which pitched its tent in Delhi in the first week of December, performers — trapeze artists, acrobats, clowns, fire-eaters, shooters — faced empty chairs, with barely 100 people seated in the space that can otherwise accommodate over 2,000.
Asiad — one of the few surviving mobile circuses — is “dying” and the Centre’s proposal to ban the use of animals in any form of mobile entertainment could be the last nail in its coffin, says its owner and organiser Rajan Khan. The circus, which still advertises its “animal shows”, starts with two horses circling the big top, with their trainer leading them.
It also has “performances” by cockatoos that sit in a miniature Ferris wheel, macaws doing balancing acts and Pomeranians “driving” toy cars. Khan, a Kanpur resident who newly inherited the business from his father, Raju Pehelwan, is trying hard to “reinvent” his legacy, but he glumly says, “A circus is a small economy, and it is a dying business.”
The MBA graduate believes social media presence could play a key role in “popularising” circuses among the millennials, who have “varied and better” entertainment options. But, he adds, “The Centre’s draft rules, if implemented, will be a death blow. Children are attracted to circuses because they can see live animals.”
Till last year, Khan’s circus had a hippopotamus, but it was “gifted” to a zoo, the details of which are “confidential”. “The hippopotamus was with us for over five years having come to us from a zoo when it two years old. It was very difficult for us to give it up, from both personal and business points of view,” he said.
Banning animals will also mean livelihoods will be affected. Motu, an animal trainer with Asiad for the last 15 years, worked with elephants earlier. After a ban on the pachyderms in 2017, he started training horses, but is beset by new worries. Motu is among the 100 performers who are constantly on the road, move with the circus to new destinations. For now, his home is one of the 35 tents pitched on a one-acre field in Dwarka, but he does not know where he and his friends will perform after Delhi.
The circus folk admit that survival is becoming more difficult because of dwindling audiences. It’s more challenging now to hold people’s attention or to make them laugh. Plus new talent is hard to come by, says Khan, adding that the applause is the only “reward” that the performers can hope for.
Perhaps the fault is with the circuses for being unable to cope with the ban on wild animals in 1998 and the one on elephants in 2017. NG Jayasimha, managing director of Humane Society International and former member of the Animal Welfare Board of India, remarks, “The ban on animals is not a hindrance but a gift. It should have pushed the industry to introduce new things, but circuses have remained frozen in time.”
Jayasimha advocates the ban being extended to other industries, like films, as well. He explains that under the Performing Animals (Registration) Amendment Rules, 2018, possession of animals is not an issue. “Circus owners can continue to own animals if they have farms or open spaces where the animals can move freely,” says Jayasimha. “If they want to give up the animals, we will be happy to put them up for adoption through proper channels.”
Popular as animals are, views may be changing though. As Samrin Ali, who was at Asiad Circus with her two-and-half-year-old son, admits, “We did not come here to see just the animals perform. There are several shows a circus can put up. They have stuck to the same routine for years, so the audience is losing interest and moving on to something else.” Clearly, that is as clear a message to Khan and others of his ilk as much as the ban on animals is.