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On India's circus capital, and Sreedharan Chambad, performer-turned-chronicler

Jun 16, 2024 09:29 PM IST

Sreedharan Chambad, 86, died on June 15 in Patyam near Thalassery

India's first circus was started in 1880 by Vishnu Pant Chhatre, a horse trainer and riding master in charge of the stables of the king of Kurduwadi in present-day Maharashtra, but it was only when his circus company reached Thalassery in the far south a few years later that daredevilry became its hallmark.

Sreedharan Chambad, a trapeze performer who later ran his own circus company before graduating as an author-screenwriter. PREMIUM
Sreedharan Chambad, a trapeze performer who later ran his own circus company before graduating as an author-screenwriter.

Located in northern Kerala’s Kannur district, the state's eighth most populous city, the coastal town of Thalassery was back then a British cantonment.

Thalassery's famed gymnastic expert, Keeleri Kunhikannan, offered to train the artists of Chhatre's Great Indian Circus in trapeze, acrobatics, and other high-risk performances by incorporating the best of the local martial art form, Kalaripayattu.

India's first circus training academy was born under Kunhikannan in 1888, with the blessings of Chhatre. The first training academy was a failed experiment but Kunhikannan didn’t give up and a full-fledged academy started functioning in Thalassery in 1901.

The poor, jobless youth of Thalassery and the nearby regions turned up in large numbers to get trained in the difficult performances involving trapeze, acrobatics, horizontal bars, and foot juggling. Thalassery soon became India's circus capital by 1910, home to 26 large companies with a pan-Indian presence, according to Sreedharan Chambad, a trapeze performer who later ran his own circus company before graduating as an author-screenwriter.

Chambad wrote extensively chronicling the history of Indian circus. His book, An Album of Indian Big Tops (History of Indian Circus), which he wrote after authoring 20 books in Malayalam on the topic, remains the most comprehensive volume tracking the origin and evolution of the Indian circus.

Chambad, 86, who also wrote the script and screenplay for the widely-acclaimed G Aravindan's Thambu’ and KG George's Mela revolving around the circus, died on June 15 in Patyam near Thalassery.

Chambad was considered the right hand of India's circus legend, `Gemini' Sankaran, known for his circus companies Gemini and Jumbo, when he sought to modernise the circus over the years and get personalities such as Jawaharlal Nehru to be patrons of the circus.

But in his final days, Chambad was unhappy over the plight of circuses due to multiple restrictions imposed on them. Even a much-hyped circus academy established by the Kerala government at Chirakuni in Thalassery was a failed project due to a lack of funds, infrastructure, and trainees.

He always believed the court-led ban on using wild animals in circuses had dealt the biggest blow to the industry.

When Sankaran died in April last year, Chambad predicted that the death of the Indian circus, too, was imminent.

Already, India has just about 30-odd circuses, down from the 300 in the 1980s and 1990s.

There was a time, wrote Chambad in his book, when “getting admission to Keeleri's training centre itself had ensured three square meals to children when poverty was at its peak in the neighbourhoods”.

“Apart from acrobatics and clowns, a major attraction in the circus ring was animal shows, which were a huge hit in those towns without zoos. The circus was the only place to see a tiger, lion, chimpanzee, or hippopotamus. When the ringmaster got them to perform (like lions jumping through a ring of fire or a pretty girl riding a hippo), the crowds went delirious,” Chambad wrote.

But the Supreme Court imposed a ban in 2001 after animal rights activists accused circus companies of sedating and starving animals to get them to perform. A subsequent ban on hiring performers before they turned 18 also hurt the circus.

Chambad reasoned that it was not easy to make a profit, given that each circus was like an army that needed to be moved from place to place, fed, and cared for.

“For the older generation, the circus troupes of Thalassery form part of a great sense of nostalgia. They remember the old days when artists swung on the trapeze high above the ground, enslaved the big cats on the ring, played with fire and tickled audiences with their clowning. The Thalassry circus created a great aesthetic sensibility across the nation, and Sreedharan Chambad played a significant role in it,” said veteran artist Paris Mohankumar.

Television gave one of the hardest knocks to the Indian circus. Why should you get into a hot and humid tent to watch acrobatics or animal shows? We even tried air-conditioned tents. They were impractical, and we incurred huge losses,” Chambad wrote in his book.

With Chambad's death, the legacy of performers who became operators of circus companies in Thalassery also ends.

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