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Down comes the Big Top

Ban on child performers looks like the end for Indian circuses

Down comes the Big Top
Child circus performers are a thing of the past
George Kommattathil, Thalassery

May 2, 2011

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The death knell recently sounded for the Indian circus with the recent Supreme Court's ruling banning children under 14 years from performing. But the judgment was merely the last nail in the coffin of what was already a dying art. Circuses no longer pull the crowds they once did and that has led to fewer trained artists. An earlier ban on the use of wild animals had already hit circuses hard but the exclusion of children will cause its “sudden death," says N P Naryanan, a veteran circus artist from Kerala’s Thalassery town, the birthplace of the circus in India. “Acrobatics can be taught only at a tender age. We can’t teach an old horse a new trick,” says Narayanan, who is now retired in Palayad village in Kannur district.
N P Naryanan, a 30-year veteran circus artist with his wife 'Spring Nite' Narayanan
The court's verdict followed a petition lodged by the Indian children's rights group, Save the Childhood Movement. But Raj Kamal Circus owner Rajkumar told that it could not get any child from Kerala to work in the circus for the past 12 years. New entries mainly came from North Indian states. Now that will dry up too. “The new rule will speed up the extinction of a great art,” he said. Umadevi, wife of N P Narayanan said that stories of exploitation of children in circus are often exaggerated. “Strict training is part of the game, we have to follow strict norms to learn,” said Umadevi who started her career in circus as a child artist. Keeleri Kunchikannan from Kerala was considered as the frontrunner of Indian Circus. He shaped its historic transformation from 1888 training hundreds of circus artistes from the state in a number of new adventurous acts. He established a circus camp at Chirakkara in 1901 which attracted hundreds of youths from Thalassery. Pariyalees Malabar Grant Circus, the first company in Kerala, was started in 1904 by a disciple of Keeleri. It is estimated that more than 2,000 people have left the circus and are struggling to move ahead with a new source of livelihood. No organization has come to their rescue, says Narayanan. “The circus should be considered a national art and needs to be protected. Instead of banning, the government should take steps to consider it as a profession with a decent salary structure, job security and other allowances,” the veteran artist said. Last year, a circus academy was established in Thalassery to train children for various circus groups. Now that it is unlikely to be allowed to continue, the future of Indian circus is “bleak," he says. IB14028
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