The World of the Wandering Circus

Dated February 2000. Previously unpublished.

The sunlight on that 22nd January 2000 forenoon had washed away the magic of the previous night. Shorn off the glitter and the glamour, the circus arena and the surroundings were bathed in a homely, rustic glow. The tusk-less elephant stood morosely, flapping its ears. The white majestic horses with long manes had their nozzles in the hay bins. The panoramic cupola of the tent was folded up, exposing a criss-cross of thick ropes and poles still pegged on the dusty ground, giving ample space to the children artistes to glide by on their roller skates. The full circle of the make-shift stadium was broken as the workers pulled apart the raised iron benches and were busy stacking them. The stage floor was half gone, exposing the wagon of the caged lions. The raised floor of the musical band was still up, hanging in mid-air, with a disorderly queue of drums and other instruments. Beyond the remains of the stadium, were rows of small tents pitched side by side. Some of the curtain doors were flung open, exposing artistes on bed, curled up in comforters, some yawning, some still asleep, with the crumpled shiny costumes of the last show heaped on the top of the huge zinc trunks.

That was the last day of the Lucky Irani Show in Karachi. The mobile troupe of trapeze artistes, acrobats, gymnasts, ballerinas, clowns, midgets, ring masters and their herd of lions, horses, dogs and chimpanzees had been ordered by the District Management to pack up and leave. A pall of gloom shadowed the hustle and bustle of the pulling-it-down affair. The circus management and the artistes were disappointed. The Circus had come to Karachi after 20 years for an expected 3-month spell of performance. And they received a very warm and eager response from the fun-starved Karachiites.

“I tried to convince the Administration to let us continue. We are not into any hanky-panky business. We provide pure family entertainment to the people. Ours is full-fledged circus. We have a staff of 550 people, including 60 artistes. We pay full taxes to the government. We have paid Rs. 100,000 in advance as rent for this place. As far as law-and-order situation is concerned, it is a lame excuse. You don’t shut down public places, like parks, cinemas, art galleries, and theatres on that pretext. Why shut down a circus?” Jamal Baba, the Circus Manager with an aquiline nose, high cheekbones and copper complexion, is rather bitter that he has been asked to leave Karachi when the circus was at its peak of performance, drawing huge crowds.

I remembered the show I had watched two nights ago. Flying trapeze and other aerial acts performed by a team of young men and women with great precision on parallel bars and hanging ropes in the roof of the arena, the acts that made you miss your pulse for a flicker and let you freeze in your seat. The elegant tightrope walkers, balancing with parasols, bicycling and unicycling on the rope. The gymnasts and acrobats, who made human pyramid, balancing their feet and agile bodies on each other’s shoulders, heads and palms. The young woman who played with a lioness and let you wonder what would she do if the animal goes wild. The ringmaster who made nine lion and lionesses stood up on hind legs and jump from a ring. The woman who let herself silhouetted with flaming knives. The clowns and the midgets who made you laugh with their earthly jokes. The Ukrainian dancer with golden hair, lithe arms and legs, bare belly button, tight black blouse and flowing red skirt who dazzled you with her version of the wild snake dance. And the master of the ceremonies and the live band who presented the performers amidst remix of old Indian songs on loud beats.

What amazed you most was the congenial, tolerant, humane behaviour of about 1500 to 2000 Karachiites who sat glued to the hard iron benches and the plastic chairs for three hours at a stretch. The crowd neither squirm at the jokes that touched a raw nerve: Muslim culture; nor went wild at the gyrating dancer. The people simply enjoyed every minute of it.

“The world of circus is different from all kinds of worlds. This is something else, a world of its own. My father liked it. I like it,” says dreamy-eyed, 26-year old Shahid, with his 4-month-old, tiny son on his lap. “Let’s see if my children like it or not,” Shahid looks at his 3-year-old daughter. “I want them to study”, chimed in his wife. “I was 10 when I joined the circus,” Shahid continued. “My father was a gymnast here and he taught me gymnastics and acrobatics, flying and all. I am here for the last 16 years.”  Shahid’s wife lives with him but he doesn’t let her work in the circus. Shahid’s father now old, lives with his other children in Qasur, Punjab.

“I have no formal education,” there was a glint of regret in his eye for a flicker. “The only thing I learned is gymnastics. And I am good at it”, he said proudly. “To the spectators, the acts look very dangerous but we don’t feel any fear while performing. You can say that we like to play with death. You see, we learn to lose fear of death. It’s a slow learning. It starts from childhood”. Shahid has no complaints against the safety measures. “If we get hurt, it’s part of the game”. Shahid is satisfied with what he gets at the circus. “I make not less than Rs.9000 per month here. We also get subsidized food”.

Ayesha, the 12-year-old gymnast, is performing for the last four year. Slim, lanky, and tanned, with big, sad, almond-shaped eyes, thick eyelashes, pointed chin, Ayesha is the star of the show, so masterly is her performance. “My father has been in circus for the last many years. He doesn’t perform any more. I learned gymnastics from him. Two of my brothers work in the circus as well. My elder sister was also a gymnast. She left the circus after marriage,” she talks softly and slowly. With the exception of two-hour daily exercise regime under the supervision of her instructor, and of course, 2-3 daily shows, Ayesha spends her time like other children, watching TV on dish, roller skating and playing with other children. Ayesha has never been to school. “I want to go to school”, she says dreamily. Despite the perfection she has achieved as an artiste at such a tender age, and the standing ovations she receives after each performance, Ayesha has no ambitions. And a life as a wandering artiste is definitely not what she dreams about. “When I grow up I want to stay home”, she says simply.

Javed Ali, the gymnast and Ayesha’s instructor is in this circus for the last 14 years. In his late 30s now, Javed, joined the circus for the first time at the age of 12. “ I fell in love with gymnastics when I saw it first time on TV. It was Olympics, I guess. From that day on, I wanted to be a gymnast”. Javed got himself enrolled in a judo, karate and gymnastic club in Lahore where he lived with his parents and siblings. For eight years he participated in competitions from Lahore district. He won a gold medal in 1983. “I left home telling them I was going to find a job. I joined the circus. My parents were not happy when they came to know my involvement with the circus. They did not approve of it in the beginning. But later on they accepted the fact”, says he. Javed has deep-set, small eyes with wrinkles at the corner, a calm face that seems to have weathered quite a few storms. “I married a girl who was working in the same circus. We had fallen in love. But it didn’t work out. Now we are divorced.  My son lives with my ex-wife. She is working in another circus”.

“I enjoy wandering from town to town, meeting interesting people, visiting new places. I feel at home everywhere. I have been to the four provinces and to most of the cities in Pakistan. I am happy with this life, performing daring acts, teaching young kids, earning modest income that suffice my needs”. Javed gets Rs. 75 per show. Too little an amount, I thought. But Javed is content. “My act is only for a minute. I am with the group that performs a balancing act. I get Rs. 75 for one performance. If there are 4 shows, I get Rs. 300 daily”. The artistes in the circus are on daily wages, paid per act. Payment depends on the nature of the act and the duration of performance. Highly skilled and dangerous acts and lengthy performances get more money.

Javed also acted as stunt in some films. “I have performed for Badar Munir . Once I performed for Saima. It was a difficult shoot, with Saima climbing and jumping from a cliff. I had to wear a wig and the people at the set laughed at me when they saw me impersonating Saima. But when I performed, they were stunned,” Javed has many anecdotes to tell you. “We get Rs. 1500 for an indoor and Rs.2200 for outdoor shift. But the supervisor gobble up our money and don’t give the total amount to us”, he says laughingly, without any grudge, or regret.

“When you watch a circus, you forget everything. You forget your anxieties. You sit glued at that moment, with your eyes fixed at the stage. The artistes provide you the thrill, the excitement, and the laughter, with their acts, gimmicks and the jokes. This feeling that we can make people smile and laugh is a very good feeling. And I really value it. There is a saying by the Prophet that if you can’t give anything to a person, just give a smile. This is the best gift. If we make people happy, make them laugh, God will be happy with us and He will make us happy. That’s what I believe in,” says Mohammad Haleel Ahmad, a young enthusiastic circus worker, yearning to become an artiste.

“I worked in this circus before for a little while. Then I came again and now I am here for the last 8 months. My mission is to become something, to live among good and interesting people. When my parents died, my paternal uncle took me in but he did not treat me well. Then my maternal uncle brought me to his home but he also maltreated me. Instead of sending me to school, my relatives made me a domestic servant. Luckily I came across a nice person in our neighbourhood who encouraged me to continue my studies. Finally I ran away from home and joined the circus. I have studied up to ninth class,” Haleel, 20 year old, reads books in his spare time and is preparing for his Matriculation exams.

Babar is 14 and he is proud that dressed as a scout, he opens every show raising the national flag. He likes to salute the crowd and enjoy watching them stand up when the national anthem is played. “I also perform a jumping act on the rope ladder. I get Rs. 110 for once act. I was five when I started learning it. I want to learn flying jump. I exercise daily with my Sirji. I enjoy being in the circus”, Babar’s father is a driver in the circus and his mother is dead. He has never been to school.

Similarly, Majid Ali is 13 and performs the amazing act of dental prowess. He lifts a person who perches on a rod that Majid holds from his teeth! “It comes with a lot of practice. I am learning it since I was 5. In the beginning it used to hurt. But now I enjoy it”, he says, dressed up in a crisp qameez shalwar, to go to the Clifton beach on his last day in Karachi. Once Majid fell down during the performance and broke his arm. But the accident didn’t deter him. Originally from Sahiwal, Majid’s father is a tailor master in the circus. His mother works as a helper.

Shahid is a handsome young man of 25. “My mother was a gymnast. I learned gynmastics from her and later took lessons from an instructor. You can excel in this art if you have an abiding interest and determination. My ambition is to make a name in Pakistan and if possible, in the world.” Though a literate, Shahid has no formal schooling. Married to a young Ukrainian artiste, Shahid is happy with his life in the circus.

“I want to live in Pakistan”, says Julia, who has brown eyes, golden skin and hands decorated with Hena. Julia has learned gymnastics from an academy in Ukraine. Three years ago when the owner of the Lucky Irani Circus was in Ukraine for talent hunting, he liked Julia’s performance. “He asked me whether I would like to work in his circus in Pakistan. I thought it was an interesting idea. So came I here on contract, three years ago. But I keep visiting Ukraine,” Julia speaks haltingly in broken English.

“I am not interested in circus. There is no charm in it for me. To me it’s one of the routine things that you do in a day. It has become a habit. I don’t enjoy it,” says kinky-haired, petite Samina who performs flying trapeze and walks on tight rope with a parasol. Shorn of her role, her movements are slow, almost somnambulistic, as if dreaming of a world san circus. “Come inside our camp. This is a family camp.” I enter a small tent cramped with four beds and a zinc trunk. “I have studied up to 5 classes”, Samina continues. “We are four sisters and two brothers. All of us work in this circus. Our elder sister is now married and lives in Lahore. She was perfect in her performance. She used to perform very daring acts. She was a maestro”, I sense contradictory threads of sentiment—a sense of pride at her sister’s skills, and a sense of relief that she could leave it all–lock, stock and barrel.

“No act is difficult. If you work hard, you can do it. Nothing is impossible, either for man or a woman,” Neelam, the younger sister tells me. She has brown eyes and a supple body. In her early 20s, she has perhaps a few more years to lose her enthusiasm like her sister.

“We are here for the last 16 years. My husband has been an electrician in this circus. We don’t let him work any more. He has become too frail,” tells the mother. She has a wrinkled and a tense face with dark shadows under her eyes, a face that can launch a novel. “We are here to earn a living. There is nothing more to it”, she says, calmly billowing smoke from a cigarette, as if spitting out her disgust at an outsider’s ignorance. “You have heard that not a leaf a can stir without His will. Haven’t you?” she looks at me cynically. “We are here in this circus as long as Allah wills, as long as our living is determined from this source,” she spells out her firm belief in Fate, a belief that seems to be serving her as armour.

In contrast to men in the circus—who love this life, who are relaxed with themselves and the way they live, and who aspire to achieve stardom–women in the circus, seem to be unsure of their ground, despite the fact that they are equal partners on the stage. Perhaps it is a reflection of the society at large. Circus is a public domain. Though not a taboo any more, the public sphere is still not considered an ideal place for a woman to be. Most of the young women I talked to do not aspire to remain in the circus for long. And they are not ambitious either to achieve stardom. Unlike many men in the circus, especially the young man who performs a feat on a six-inch bicycle. “A French artiste has performed on 14-inch bicycle and has won world fame. But look at us. We are little known even in our own country. I want to become famous in the world. But I am not educated. I cannot reach that status. And the government does not support us in our endeavours, does not recognize our talents”, he says. “Instead of encouragement, this is what we get from the government: an order to stop performing, pack up and leave Karachi”.

In most of the countries of the world, the circus as an assemblage of performing arts gets state patronage. The highly acclaimed related skills—gymnastics, acrobatics, flying trapeze and other feats are taught in academies and schools. There are associations and networks of artistes specializing in specific skills and the troupes are provided the opportunities to perform internationally. If you browse on cyber space, you will find 275 web-sites on circus through Yahoo alone. Many of the circuses in the West have their own web sites that provide information about their schedules, performances, artistes and the history of the troupe, and of course on the technological innovations in the infrastructure of circus.

In addition to lack of state patronage, the circus in Pakistan suffers from another ailment: lack of patronage from the elite. Associated with traditional ‘awami mela’ type entertainment, that is, the entertainment for the public, the teeming masses, the circus in Pakistan apparently does not exist for the high-brow circle, for the people in the power corridor, in the big cities. Is it due to an aversion to, or an unknown fear of, the masses, the humanity whom you have to rub shoulder with in a circus? Hence the question that I was asked by many. “Really? Did you go there? How was it?” And I say: “It was superb, the performance”. But the question persists: “No. I mean how was the arrangement? There must be many people, all sorts of people”. And I tell them: “The arrangement was informal. I didn’t have to queue up for a ticket. We stood in the crowd. Women and children were offered chairs to sit down while waiting for the ticket guy to come. We chatted and watched the people, and he came, collected money and handed us the ticket. When the show started, the crowd rolled in the stadium. We, around 1500 of us, sat on the benches and watched the circus. It was exhilarating”.

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