The show must go on: Circus returns to Indian city defying Covid challenges

By Sarwar Kashani

New Delhi, Jan 27 (EFE).- Jugglers, magicians, clowns, acrobats, and trapeze artists are back to captivate circus lovers with their death-defying feats and jaw-dropping flips in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata after two years of a Covid-induced shutdown.

To revive the vanishing act, the Ajanta Circus organizers have pitched the tent in the heart of the “City of Joy,” wary of the challenges they face, including a paradigm shift in the entertainment pursuits of modern audiences.

Among the oldest in the country, Ajanta has vowed that “the show must go on,” recalling the cult phrase from legendary Indian filmmaker Raj Kapoor’s 1970 film “Mera Naam Joker.”

The movie tells a story about a clown who must make his audiences laugh no matter how unhappy he himself is.

“The phrase is extremely relevant to the present phase the Ajanta Circus is going through,” manager Kishore Das told EFE.

The art form may already be breathing its last due to the challenges of rising costs, at-home entertainment options, a ban on using animals, and the pandemic-triggered health crisis.

Das admitted that the circus as a medium of entertainment had lost its relevance and had been battling an existential crisis long before the pandemic.

“People have easier entertainment options like streaming services. Online entertainment has dealt us a death blow. Interest in the circus is declining fast. Our business has dipped into the abyss,” Das said.

“And then came the coronavirus. We are negotiating the new challenge of one Covid-19 wave after another.”

So what motivated Ajanta Circus’ management to take a gamble and return?

Das said that the circus’ owner, Rabiul Haq, is “emotional” about his father’s legacy, referring to the company that was formed in 1967.

“It was an emotional decision rather than one driven by profitability. It was not an easy call. Haq decided to come back and we all followed him. And the main challenge in the present circumstances was to get our artists back under the tent,” he said.

Artists associated with Ajanta had returned to their homes and switched to new jobs after the show stopped due to the lockdowns induced by the pandemic.

Some of them had become rickshaw pullers, some were doing odd jobs to make ends meet and others had turned to agriculture.

Das said it was very tough to convince them to return to the show while getting new artists was impossible and foreign performers could not be called due to the pandemic.

“Training freshers is not possible because you have to pick the art, like gymnastics, acrobatics, rope walking, from your childhood. We are not allowed to hire children due to the child labor ban. It took us months to hire the right replacements and finalize the shows.”

Several governments, including in India, around the world, have already banned the use of animals in circuses.

“Wild animals, except elephants, were banned from circuses in 2000. Then in 2014, even elephants were banned. We used to fill the gap with human performances, mostly by foreigners. But the pandemic has effectively put an end to that,” Das lamented.

He said that the show in Kolkata was running almost empty and hardly 20-25 percent of seats were booked.

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