The show is over at India’s only public circus academy—and nobody seems to care

A dying art.
A dying art.
Image: AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool
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Rohan Rahman has harboured a dream ever since, as a nine year old, he boarded a train from Sonapur, West Bengal, to Thalassery in Kerala in the last week of July 2010. Throughout the long, drowsy journey, he couldn’t sleep. Instead, he kept preparing for the rigorous training that would meet him at his destination.

“I will train hard to become a popular circus artiste,” he told himself.

Rahman was lucky to get admission in the Kerala Circus Academy, India’s only government-funded training centre for circus artistes. His father, mother and sister are all trained circus performers and that allowed him to join the academy on a quota provided for the wards of circus artistes.

On August 2, 2010, the Kerala Circus Academy opened in an old theatre building in Chirakkuni, a suburb of the coastal town of Thalassery, with the aim of training youngsters seeking a career in the circus. Rahman was one of the ten trainees that joined—the others came from Tamil Nadu, Assam, Bihar and Nepal.

In the morning, the children would learn the ropes of floor exercises, clowning and entertainment, tent building, dress-making, music, and food preparation. And later in the day, they would receive formal education from the Dharmadam Upper Primary School and the Government Higher Secondary School in Palayad.

Rohan Rahman.
Image: TA Ameerudheen

But six years on, Rahman is the last remaining trainee at the academy.

The Kerala Circus Academy closed in March when the state government was unable to pay the salaries of the coaches and staff or give the trainees their allowance.

“I hope the facility will open soon,” said Rahman. “The hostel too needs repair. Water was seeping into the room through the leaky roof.”

Rahman plans to return to Sonapur in March 2017. “I would have gone this year itself, but I stayed back as my father wanted me to write the Class 10 examination.” For now, he is staying as a paying guest with a family. He can neither train at the facility nor stay in the hostel. Once he is back in Bengal, he says he will “join Gemini, Jumbo or Great Royal as a junior artiste”.

Thalassery was the ideal place for a circus academy. The town’s association with the circus began as early as 1888 when Keeleri Kunhikkannan, known as the father of the Indian circus, set up the country’s first training facility. It was called Circus Training Hall.

Along with his illustrious disciples, Mannan Teacher and M K Raman, Kunhikkannan trained men, women and children in circus acrobatics, blending the western physical culture with ��indigenous martial art forms such as kalaripayattu and kusti…”

Kunhikkannan’s Circus Training Hall produced several artistes, including Kannan Bombayo, the legendary rope dancer who went on to become a star attraction in the US and Europe. Besides that, the academy also gave birth to several circus companies, such as the Great Bombay Circus, Whiteway Circus, and the Great Lion Circus, among others.

“Keeleri’s training centre never faced a shortage of students,” said Sreedharan Champad, a circus artiste-turned-writer who chronicled the history of the Indian circus in his book, An Album of Indian Big Tops. “Enrolling at the academy ensured three square meals to the children when poverty was at its peak.”

Dental trapeze at Jumbo Circus (1984).
Image: Image courtesy: Sreedharan Champad

That was why circus lovers were delighted when the Kerala government, through its Sports and Youth Affairs Department, decided to open an academy in Thalassery, 71 years after the death of Kunhikkannan.

The campus was set up at a rented facility; a curriculum was drawn up and trainers and staff hired. However, things went south not long after. The lack of proper equipment hobbled the trainers and they were forced to make do with limited resources.

“The syllabus stipulated that training should be given in floor exercises, vaulting table, beam, parallel bars, uneven bars, high bars, rings and pommel horse,” said K Raghavan, a veteran circus artiste and one of the three trainers at Kerala Circus Academy. “There is a limit to what we could do without proper equipment.”

Champad agrees.

“It was launched without enough ground work,” he said. “It failed to attract students from the beginning. The government’s lack of interest, scarcity of equipment and non-availability of quality coaches did the academy in.”

The Kerala government has lately shown some interest in a revival with Sports Minister EP Jayarajan holding talks with officials and hinting that the Kerala Circus Academy may be converted into a gymnastics centre. But this announcement has unnerved the circus community.

“How can the government promote circus by setting up a gymnastics centre?” Champad demanded, noting that only a government initiative could change the fortunes of a dying art.

“The Parliament should enact a legislation to protect the rights of artistes. It should stipulate salary structure from trainees to senior level performers. Many artistes from Thalassery lost their lives and suffered serious injuries in shows. It is a risky job and the government should ensure decent compensation. Academies will attract talents only if people think that it is rewarding job.”

Image: Image courtesy Sreedharan Champad

Meanwhile, Rahman, who will turn 15 soon, is oblivious of the government’s plan to revive the academy. His only wish is to see a fully-equipped circus training institute in Thalassery, his home town for the last six years.

Though he has lately received no training from the academy, Rahman tries to stay in shape by participating in school competitions. For him, this is the only way to realise his long-cherished dream.

“I train regularly and keep myself fit,” he said. “Only a fit person can become a good circus artiste.”

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