Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Show Must Go On

How wonderful it is to leave the drudgery of daily existence and lose yourself in the fantastic, colourful world of the circus.

The Wikipedia defines the circus as “a travelling company of performers that may include acrobats, clowns, animals, trapeze acts, hoopers, tightrope walkers, jugglers, unicyclists and other stunt-oriented artists.” Circus performances are carried out by trained human as well as animal performers and comprise a series of acts choreographed to lively, upbeat music.

Circus life is portrayed in books and films as the most romantic of fantasies come true and makes everyone wish to be a part of it as it has an undying universal appeal. For decades performers have been stealing the hearts of viewers by enacting their secret fantasies through their very risky acrobatics and colourful, lighthearted fun moments. In countries like India where day to day life is mired in issues of poverty for an overwhelming majority, people seek thrill and entertainment in a not too expensive way, and visiting a circus is an activity considered a valued part of family fun. For others, it is also seen as an escape from the grind of daily existence.

However, in the last few decades the issues of animal rights have overshadowed the entertainment element of many a business dependent upon the use of animal performers. According to a recent BBC report on life inside the Rambo Circus in Mumbai, business is slow and the circus management is introducing acts from China, Africa and Uzbekistan to retain innovation. The owner Sujit Dilip thinks it is almost 60% down from that of years past, because of the animal ban imposed by the government. Many of the exotic animals that people are so keen to come and watch, have been shifted to the zoos while animal rights activists continue to cry hoarse about allowing circuses to restrict others to conditions that are very different from their natural habitat.

The Indian circus community has faced a dilemma since the Union Environment Ministry imposed a ban based on the 1960 Prevention of Cruelty against Animals, and on training and performance of wild animals such as bears, monkeys, tigers, lions and panthers in 1991. Circus owners like Sujit chakravorty of Empire Circus, swear that circuses cannot sustain without animals, but Anuradha Sawhney of People for Ethical Treatment of Animals has asserted that “Circus owners frequently flout rules and treat animals in the worst possible way.” – a fact that is indeed common knowledge. Animal trainers are generally known to use crude and cruel methods to train and tame. Animals are kept in undersized, filthy cages in which they can’t even turn around fully, lie down, or stand up comfortably. They also go for long periods without adequate supply of water and food to prevent soiling of cages, and there’s no appropriate arrangement of proper ventilation. Moreover, when travelling from place to place the transportation is done without much regard to their comfort or safety.

The first global study of animal welfare in circuses has noted that wild animals used in circuses are least suited for life in captivity and they are often kept in unfriendly conditions even after reaching their destinations. “It’s no one single factor. Whether it’s lack of space and exercise, or lack of social contact, all factors combined show it’s a poor quality of life compared with the wild.” the lead researcher of the study, Stephen Harris of the University of Bristol, UK was quoted in New Scientist magazine as saying. He added that “There is no evidence to suggest that the natural needs of non-domesticated animals can be met through the living conditions and husbandry offered by circuses. Neither natural environment nor much natural behavior can be recreated in circuses,” The survey also concluded that on average, wild animals which are part of circuses spend just 1 to 9 % of their time training, while the rest confined to small spaces covering less than a quarter of the area recommended by zoos. The circuses are also required to have tranquilizing guns and medicines to ensure safety of human and animal performers as well as minimize danger to the public. “But it is flouted everywhere and mahaouts and public is being hit and killed by elephants under continuous stress,” said Dr. Sandeep K. Jain, a member of the Animal Welfare Board of India.

Some of the other serious issues addressed by legislation and animal rights activists include premature removal of baby elephants born in breeding compounds from their mothers; use of hooks and whips used on animals during performances, and tight collars, muzzles, electric prods, smaller hand-held shocking devices, sticks, axe handles, baseball bats and metal pipes used during training sessions in order to break their spirit and keep them subdued.

India’s Central Zoo Authority has been very active in protecting animal rights and has laid down conditions for recognizing captive animal facilities. Hence, in India, it is illegal to exhibit, train or make certain wild animals perform in circuses, including bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers and lions. Circuses that want to use elephants are required to get permission from the Central Zoo Authority and performances by other animals need registration with the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI). However, as with everything else, constant supervision is required to ensure the rules are met with.

There’s a lot of stress on animal rights issues, but human performers face many dilemmas too which are not always addressed. The life of a circus artist is not easy. Many of the circus artists belong to economically disadvantaged sections of society who have no other means of income and are not educated. Some of them have had to give up education in order to support their families, while a few others have confessed to having run away from home, unable to resist the lure of travel and the constant thrill and adventure the circus life provides. They spend their whole lives chasing an unreal world of dreams but remain committed to it once they have joined. The risky acts require extensive training and commitment, but the circus ring only translates their dreams till they are able to keep up with the hectic routine. They put up brave smiles and go on to provide light moments when the living gets too tough for the rest of us, while they have to go back to their many grim realities of life, including concerns for their future and of the future of their children. They fear old age since only a few are able to secure positions as trainers for newcomers.

Life of circus entertainers may appear to be happy and full of excitement but there are so many mysteries behind the ever-present smiles of clowns that betray not a hint of the chaos that goes on behind the scenes. When the performances end and the public leaves rejuvenated, they put away their props and tools, wash away fake smiles, and check the ropes to make sure the safety aspect is taken care of for next time and the sense of wonder that the public seeks is maintained. Indeed, they put the realities of their lives on hold to ensure the continuity of our fantasies.

Published SouthAsia Nov 2009

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