Representative photo of a circus elephant: Annie Spratt/Unsplash
Circuses in India can’t seem to catch a break.
They have struggled to stay afloat for the last two decades, with bans on the use of animals and employment of children under 18 years of age, rise of other, modern forms of entertainment and an inability to quickly reinvent themselves. Then the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown dealt a new and crushing blow.
In December 2020, the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) cancelled the registrations of five circuses: Great Golden Circus, Ahmedabad; Asiad Circus, Kanpur; Apollo Circus, Maujpur (Delhi), Rayman Circus, Kanpur; and Nataraj Circus, Kolkata. The decision was announced in response to a petition filed by the Federation for Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO) in the Delhi high court, claiming these circuses were still using animals and that, in some cases, they had been abandoned because of the lockdown.
FIAPO’s executive director Varda Mehrotra told The Wire Science that the organisation has been working towards a complete ban on the use of animals in circuses. “It is an inherently cruel practice, that is why we filed the petition,” she said in an email.
Animals still used in entertainment, sport and tourism in India include elephants, bullocks, dogs and birds. About 3,500 captive elephants in India are used in religious ceremonies and for tourist rides in temples and forts, and a temple elephant trained to pat tourists’ heads or take their proffered food is a fairly common sight.
Elephants have been used in circuses for a long time, but due to the appalling conditions in which they are often trained, many countries have banned the practice altogether.
Buffalo races are a common festive sport in rural areas in India, with Tamil Nadu’s jallikattu being one of the most contentious, with equivalents in Andhra Pradesh (the annual kambala race) and Maharashtra. While these races don’t involve the animals performing circus tricks, they have been known to use dubious methods to make the bullocks more aggressive.
Nostalgia about circuses in India is largely centred on their animals, and most circus owners say the decline began with the ban on the use of animals. Anwar Khan, owner of the Ahmedabad-based Great Golden Circus, said in a 2017 interview that in its heyday, his circus was home to elephants, tigers, lions, cheetahs, horses, chimpanzees and even a hippopotamus.
“Our viewership has come down significantly post restrictions on use of wild animals,” Dilip Nath Nair, managing partner of Great Bombay Circus, has said. “The situation is worse in rural India, where people throng circuses only to see animals.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for many circus companies, with numbers already at a diminutive 30, compared to 300 or so during the 1990s. Some of them ran out of food soon after the lockdown began, in March 2020, and others have sent their artistes away with a promise to call them back soon. The physical distancing and isolation guidelines have kept even a smattering of spectators at bay.
The AWBI order, while cancelling the registrations of the five circuses, said, “During the inspection of these circuses, either the circuses were not found at their registered address or, if found, there were no animals at the location nor the circus owners disclosed the location of the animals which are registered under the Performing Animals (Registration) Rules 2001.”
What becomes of the animals rescued from circuses? Nisha P.R., a social scientist who has been studying the social history of circuses in South Asia, said their management and rehabilitation is often fraught due to legal tangles, influenced by human conceptions of where the animal might be most content.
Bans on the use of animals in circuses began from 1991, beginning with bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers and dogs. There were two concerns in the immediate aftermath: the fate of the animals and their trainers’ livelihoods.
A petition in 1998 said that, following the ban, nearly 40,000 animal trainers, performers and caretakers would be left jobless, torn from a trade that was almost a century old. In a paper published in 2017, Nisha reported that circus owners and workers had also argued that the circus animals that had been born and brought up had also become accustomed to the circus way of life, and wouldn’t survive in the wild or in any other surroundings.
Her paper also highlighted the animal trainers’ argument – that animals bred more in circuses relative to zoos and wildlife centres, and that the bond between trainers and their charges had been disregarded during the enforcement of these rules, to the detriment of both. She cited the example of a tiger trainer named Rama master, who died by suicide after his charges were taken away, and of Sujit Dilip, the owner of Rambo Circus, begging officials to take at least one of the trainers in his employ with them.
The afterlives of animals, reported in a 2008 article on lions rescued from various circuses and sent to zoos, included being segregated into male-only and female-only enclosures, often crammed into spaces too small to accommodate their number and, worst of all, being tranquilised so “they didn’t get violent due to a lack of sex”.
(The segregation happened because India’s wildlife laws don’t allow interbreeding between hybrid animals, and most of the lions there were a mix of Asiatic and African species).
In a 2013 interview, Nair recounted the time when 15 big cats were taken away from his circus in 1997. “They told me they were taking them to a zoo in Tirupati. Later, when we visited the zoo, they told us all the animals had died,” he said.
Zoos walk a similar tightrope as circuses, since they were born from a concept of exhibiting ‘exotic’ animals captured from other countries, and so come near to the maxim of ‘use of animals for entertainment’.
“We know the zoo as an educational area but the condition of animals there is not good,” Mehrotra said. “In 2012, we achieved a ban on dolphinariums in India. The wild animals should be kept in the wild as they are not a source of entertainment.”
The number of circuses in India dropped noticeably in the 2010s. Most circus owners cite the rise of OTT platforms and animation films as the prime reasons for dwindling crowds. Anwar Khan noted the ease of access provided by mobile phones in particular. “People these days have a variety of options right in their hands. Entertainment is just one click away,” he said.
Clowns in particular miss the children. In an October 2020 interview with Hindustan Times, Biju Pushkaran, 51, a circus clown working with Rambo Circus, said, “What excites me are the hugs from children in the audience. They take selfies with me. It is this adulation that kept me going all these years.”
But with the old, formulaic ‘three-act’ routines becoming less popular, they may have to reinvent their shows going ahead.
Contemporary circuses were also hit hard by the pandemic. Cirque du Soleil, arguably one of the most famous circuses in the world, filed for bankruptcy in 2020 and laid off 95% of its workforce. However, within a month, it reached a new purchase agreement that threw it a lifeline.
Built on the concept of nouveau cirque, contemporary circuses rarely use animals in their acts, and instead incorporate traditional juggling skills, acrobatics and elaborate scenery to perform narrative-driven sequences.
“We’re trying to make Indian circuses more relevant for today’s audience. Our tents, lights and sound systems have vastly improved over the years,” Sanjeev Balagopal of the Great Royal Circus told Economic Times in 2016. “We may not become Cirque du Soleil overnight but we’re definitely trying to improve.”
Other steps include trying to take circus acts online. The Pune-based Rambo Circus began a three-day stream of an hour-long show entitled ‘Life is a Circus – An Ode to the Greatest Sportsmanship’ in September 2020. It involved two months of planning, and included scriptwriters, choreographers and make-up artistes, 10 days of rehearsals and a three-day final shoot.
The idea came from Aditya Shah, who says his family has been in the circus business for 70 years. “I tried multiple things to revamp the industry but I realised that [the circus] was not prepared for an overhaul and resistant to a digital change,” he said in a September 2020 interview. The show had a proper script, and the creators said that they had more in store.
The screen grabs show behind-the-scenes rehearsals and practising, and no animals. Only human artistes and their acrobatic prowess. Animal rights activists say they approve of such formats.
“As FIAPO, we always believe there is amazing human talent in the world and we always encourage them, especially our human traditional arts. Those are the ones performed by humans and also promoted by the governments through which the livelihood of the artist should be supported,” Mehtrotra said. “And artists should not rely on undignified and pity tricks that animals are made to do when such amazingly talented human artists are available for entertainment.”
Renuka Kulkarni is a science writer based in Pune, India, and is currently pursuing a PhD in political ecology.