While consuming any entertainment content, we are often asked to focus on the stuff at hand and not the background of it. This narrative exists because most entertainment industries, such as the circus, have always thrived on human depravity. Behind their displayed smiles, artists hide crushed souls.
Origin of circus
Circus, even though it was highly popular till the 1st half of this millennium, is not a new concept. It is believed to have originated in ancient Rome. Circus is a Latin Word which means a rounded or oval hall with seats where entertainers give their performances.
In Rome, Circus was a building for horse and chariot races, equestrian shows, staged battles, gladiatorial combat, and displays of (and fights with) trained animals. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the performers went out of business and to earn bread and butter, they started performing at local fairs in the European towns.
Phillip Astley gave it modern form
A millennium later, Philip Astley, a cavalry officer, decided to resurrect the art. He was a rider who used to ride in a 42ft diameter ring. He, like other entertainers, used to perform on roads and in empty locations, one of which was London’s modern-day Waterloo. In 1769, he opened his riding school where he taught riding in the mornings and performed stunts in the afternoons.
As his wealth expanded, he decided to hire other equestrians, musicians, a clown, jugglers, tumblers, tightrope walkers, and dancing dogs. Before he gave them employment, these people mainly used to perform on roads and earn just enough to sustain. Now, when they were galvanised under one roof by Philip, their living standard increased. Before his death, Phillip had established 19 permanent circuses around whole Europe. The name ‘Circuis’ for the place was coined by Charles Dibdin, an English novelist in 1782.
Lateral expansion of Circus
Philip had set up the base and now, it was time for the future generations to build up on it. Andrew Ducrow, a man 51 years younger than Philip was the next big name in the circus industry. He was the proprietor of Phillip’s amphitheatre and the originator of horsemanship acts. Later, various other performers like Hengler and Sanger made their mark in the circus industry.
This art was not just limited to Europe. As Europeans colonised the American continent, they exported their circus as well. Englishman John Bill Ricketts is known for exporting it to the Philadelphia, in the United States. Even George Washington, the hero of the American freedom movement and their first President watched John’s show in Philadelphia. Even though, John was the first to bring Circus to America, he could not maintain his dominance.
For the first 100 years, only developed country benefited
The Circus of Pepin and Breschard dominated the American circus industry for the first two decades of the nineteenth century. They built circus theatres in most of the locations they visited, from modern-day Montreal in Canada to Havana in Cuba. The industry was growing in prominence, and new entrants were hogging the limelight.
In 1825, Joshua Purdy Brown became the first circus owner to use a large canvas tent for the circus performance. Later on, positively, a slew of innovations kept disrupting the sector.
For most of the nineteenth century, watching the circus was associated with upper class, as circus owners were concerned about their return on investment in geographies, which they regarded as, third world country.
The Indian chapter
This is why it took nearly 100 years for circuses to land in India. In 1879, Royal Italian Circus by Giuseppe Chiarini toured India. His shows came with a challenge, which was to repeat his daring stage effects within six months. He had promised to reward the succeeding individual with 1000 rupees and a horse.
Vishnupant Chatre, the riding master and keeper of the stable of Balasahib Patwardhan, the king of the Kurundwad princely state of Sangli said that he would do it in 3 months. When he came to perform his stunts in March 1880, Chiarini did not even come to see it. Chatre, later, bought most of the circus equipment from the Italian and formed a new company called GREAT INDIAN CIRCUS.
Indian circuses made their marks as well
GREAT INDIAN CIRCUS gain not just national but international fame as well. People of Sri Lanka, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Japan were some of the lucky foreign nationals to witness Chatre’s exploits. Later, his cousin invested in his company and the new company was named as Kalekar Grand Circus.
Though Chatre started the trend in India, various others also jumped in. Great Bengal Circus, Malabar Grand Circus, Great Royal Circus, Grand Bombay Circus, Hind Lion Circus and Great Ramayan Circus dominated the chart of Indian circus circuits in the 20th century. In fact, their impact on culture was so much that training academies were opened in order to equip the newly recruited performers with required skill sets.
Change in sentiments
The skill sets required for performing in the circus, a reputed art form by the time, started to widen all across the world. Now new musical themes including a specific type of musical performance in the background, gymnastics and other acrobatics were also a key feature of circus shows. Their broadcast in Televisions required more and more dangerous stunts in order to garner TRPs. But, there was a problem.
By the 70s, women had started to gain prominence in positions of power. Their dominance infused a sense of compassion and kindness among masses. Within no time, animal rights and human rights of the performers started to corner the circus owners. On the other end of the spectrum, people all across the world were getting constantly bored with their boring non-violent, non-aggressive corporate lives. The animal within them craved aggression, which led to an increase in the calibre of stunts performed by circus artists.
Studies on cruelty to humans
In hindsight, people advocating for rights of fair treatment won the battle. They started to see circus owners as evil, which opened the gates for institutional investigations into the background of the circus. Initially, investigations focussed on finding traces of animal cruelties in circuses. People went as far as risking their lives by secretly recording daily circus trainings to expose the brutality being done with the animals.
According to a report, 96 per cent of circus animals spend 11 months a year in cages. Imagine being born to roam, but succumbed to slavery in confinement. In cages, these animals were subjected to tough training, sometimes as tough as standing on their hind legs. To find out the full extent of torture of these poor animals, in 2008, Netherland government conducted a study on them.
71 per cent of animals in circuses were found to have medical problems. Out of these, lions, tigers and elephants were subjected to more brutal torture. Elephants, an animal more designed to walk slowly on jungle tracts, were found to be chained for 17 long hours every day. Lions, the king of jungle, had to suffer major immunological setbacks due to staying indoors for 98 per cent of the time. Tigers, the jungle rivals of lions, in fact, faced public torture since the team found out that they were extremely terrified to jump through fire rings. Despite that they were still made to jump through that.
Not a phenomenon limited to specific country
Though the report was made specifically to serve the Netherlands government, the practice is standard all across the world. A year after Netherland government conducted its study, Kenneth Feld, CEO of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus had accepted in US District Court that animals are subject to brutality.
You want to know what Feld said in his concluding remark. While elaborating torturous regime faced by the elephants, Feld remarked that elephants are not harmed by these practices.
But facts do not lie. Between 1990-2021, 126 big cats are reported to have died in captivity. In America, 5 to 6 per cent of elephants in Circus captivity are said to have TB. Arthritis and foot infection are leading causes of death of the circus animals, as their paws and hooks are not evolutionarily designed to stand on hard surfaces for hours.
Animals just want to be free
One could argue that the training would be a cooling off period for them, but even that is not true. Whips, bull hooks, strangulation, metal hooks are some of the objects used to control the instincts of these animals. The extent of brutality is so much that when they get injured, they are given little to no veterinary care.
No wonder, these animals keep looking for an opportunity to escape the torture. In 1992, an elephant named Janet went out of control while giving a ride to a family. The newly found freedom relatively destabilised it to such an extent that she just thrashed everything coming her way, including the whole circus ground. 2 years later, another elephant in Hawaii killed her trainer and severely injured her groomer. To control her, Police fired a total 86 shots. Reportedly, between 1990-2021, 23 humans have died due to captivated cats. Between 1987-2019, captive elephants have killed 20 people.
Humans suffering humility in circus
Apparently, humans do not die like animals in circuses. They have their own tragedies in these places. Human performers in these circuses are treated not much different from that of animals. Performances in circus require a fit body, fit mind, flexible muscles and on top of that a handsome look. All these qualities in 1 person makes it impossible for the owners to hire them on less salary.
So they follow the principle of catching them young. People from a relatively poor section of the populace are taken on board and circus agents convince them that they will increase their living standards. Price? Their children would be handed over to circus authorities. At the circus, these children are trained from a very young age to put on fake smiles, use make-up and many other soft skills which include cracking jokes.
Devoid of any options, these children just throw themselves into the potomac. They train so hard that sometimes they become talented enough to compete in national as well as international games. But by the time they gain their expertise, their mind and soul has been habituated to the slavery of circuis owners. Lots of time, circus owners threaten them by using illegal means to coerce them to work. Sexual exploitation is another dark side of circus industry which very few have talked about.
Things have changed a lot
For more than 200 years, these brutalities remained in the shadows. It’s understandable since people live in a world of conflict and conflict does not allow kindness to prosper. But, it’s only during conflict that people recognise the value of lives. When they finally get out of it, they or their children take the fight forward, speaking for those who have been left behind. It has happened in the Circus industry as well.
Bolivia started the fire by becoming the first country to ban circus animals in 2009. Within 10 years, 26 more countries also banned the practice. The wave came to India as well and the authorities got more vigil towards implementation of the codes advocating for animal rights. Simultaneously, banning of child labour by Government and Supreme Court’s emphasis on strict implementation of fundamental rights made circus owners run for their money.
World over circus industry is on the verge of extinction. If there is any effort to resurrect it, they should stop. Circus can’t provide the rush that modern human craves, without harming animals and social animals. It is time to put curtains on them in the interest of owners, animals, performers and the general public.
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