Walking a Tightrope

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Walking a Tightrope

Sunday, 06 September 2020 | MUSBA HASHMI

Walking a Tightrope

Visiting a circus back in the 90s was nothing short of a festivity for many. However, with the changing time and technology the rage has faded. MUSBA HASHMI speaks with SUJIT DILIP, the owner of Rambo Circus, who talks about the experience of owning a circus today, hundreds of fascinating stories of the animals and how the circus artists deserve more recognition

Clowns, tightrope walkers, jugglers, magicians and dancers does this sound like a fantasyland to you? If yes, then probably you have never ever visited a fully functional circus. And when one talks about the circus, there is no way of missing Rambo Circus, one of the biggest and oldest circuses of the community.

The history of the circus is as big and glorious as the circus itself. “The circus is from the British Era. My father used to be a helper in the Arena Circus for years. Some years later, he realised that he needed to do something big and that is when he decided to take ownership of the Arena Circus and merged it with two other already running circuses. This was back in 1991. He then went on to do foreign tours with the Circus. In 1993, he suffered a heart attack and decided to return to India. All these years, I was busy with my college, but knowing about my father's condition, I decided to join the circus. We then thought of renaming the circus and came across the word Rambo, which means strength. We knew right then that this will be the name of our circus,” Sujit Dilip, the owner of Rambo Circus, tells you.

Owning a circus back in the 90s, he says, was nothing less than having a kingdom. “We were like kings. Such was the grandeur of owning a circus. People from all over India used to visit our circus. They used to tell us that they have travelled 100 kms to come and see our circus. It felt great. It was like a festivity for people and they didn’t want to miss it at any cost,” Dilip tells you.

However, with time the circus which once worked with a strength of around 400 artists came down to merely 100. “We had 70 animals and for each animal there were a minimum of two caretakers. From tigers to lions and from elephants to chimpanzees, we had all kinds of wild animals. For each elephant, we had 3 mahouts. But now, we are left with only 100 artists. The reason being lack of funds and low exposure,” he says.

Though, the craze of visiting a circus has dwindled in the tech-savvy children these days, Dilip agrees to disagree on the fact. “The essence has not faded and it never will. Those who don’t want to visit a circus now is just because they have probably been to a bad one. People still love it as much as they did in the past. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t be here working,” he asserts.

However, running a kingdom-like circus is not everyone’s cup of tea. More so, when it comes to an ever changing world like today. “The biggest challenge that we have faced till date was when the Government banned the animals in the Circus. It was a task to get the circus running without them. Many circuses perished after this ban. Sometimes when people came to visit the circus and they got to know that there are no animals, they asked for a refund. Most of them said that the reason they were here was just to see the animals. It became hard to survive,” he tells you.

In order to sustain without the animals, Dilip thought of inventing new things and making use of technology to keep the circus running. “We exchanged ideas with other countries and used their technologies to bring the circus to life even without animals. We trained the artists in learning new tricks and use the technology to enhance the overall experience of visiting a circus. Improved sound effects, lighting and newer stunts were introduced. In about two years, we were back on the track, but those years were definitely very challenging not only for me but for the artists as well,” he tells you.

When one talk about circus and animals, there is a preconceived fact that all animals are ill treated there. However, Dilip denies the fact and tells you that his animals were like his extended family. “I loved my animals like my family. There was a tigress which fell ill due to old age. Her treatment costed me `8,000 per day. Even the doctor who used to come for her check-up told me not to waste my money on the tigress as she doesn’t have a lot of time. But I told him that this is my duty, she is my family and I cannot leave her by herself. No matter what it cost, I will do my best to not let her suffer till death,” he says.

Not only that, Dilip used to feed his lions a balanced diet with lots of protein and multivitamins. “I used to put sea cod liver oil in the lions’ diet. I gave them a balanced diet to keep them healthy and strong. But once they turn old, their fur wears off and their skin coat becomes dull, but that doesn’t mean that they are ill treated. It is all because of the age factor, it happens with human too,” he explains.

He travels back in time to tell you about a chimpanzee, Billy, which loved his caretaker so much that he couldn’t tolerate any boy looking towards her. “Undoubtedly, the girl was beautiful and Billy loved her so much that he hated it when somebody looked at her or vice versa. He used to get so agitated that he threw stones at the boy until he goes away from the vicinity. Animals have the ability to read people’s feelings and so was the case with Billy,” he recalls.

Parting with the animals when the Government banned them was hard for Dilip and so he decided to keep Billy at his residence. “Billy loved watching Mahabharat. It was his favourite serial. One day, while I was not at home, Billy was busy watching the serial alone, soon after the power supply went off and the care taker was out to check in the reason. Billy opened his cage gate and went to the nearby salon where the barber was watching Mahabharat on his TV. The barber freaked out seeing Billy in his parlour and he shut down the lights and the TV and drew the shutter down. Billy got so angry that he broke the TV. The barber then complained about me and I was told by the police not to keep a wild animal at the residence. Then I had to send Billy off to another organisation. He stayed there for a while but died soon after due to a tragedy. Some people at the organisation advised to put robes in its cage so that they can play. I asked them not to and told them that it is risky. But to no good. Within a week, Billy died because of getting choked by the ropes. In fact all my animals died within six months of parting with me,” he tells you.

There are so many stories from the circus, he says, that we can make a web series out of it. “If I had the clips and recordings, I would have made a documentary. There are so many interesting stories of animals. Not to mention, when our artists used to sleep in the lions’ cage. Had that man been alive, I would have made a separate series on him,” he tells you.

One thing that makes Rambo Circus stand out from the clutter is the unity in the team. “Like I said, many circuses were not able to cope with the pressure and reinvent themselves. The reason why Rambo Circus still stands strong is because we have unity. We all are like one big family. One example of this unity is when the lockdown happened, I asked the artists to go back home and that we will pay them.  Most of them refused and said that we all are together in this and that this is their home and they don’t want to leave it. Also, like I said the word Rambo itself means strength, so we all gain our strength from it,” he tells you.

All the artists come close to Dilip, but there was a clown who was disowned by his family and took shelter in the circus and then became a family. “He was disabled and his family disowned him because of embarrassment. He started working with a circus and met my father on a foreign trip. When the circus was shut down, he came to us for work. His acts was loved by one and all and it got him a coverage with his photograph in a newspaper. His family saw the story and they started visiting him. They brought him lunch every day and convinced him of going back to the village. He told me about his plans and I said that you can come whenever you want and leave whenever you want. You are free to make a choice and that we will still be a family. He went back, opened a shop and gave all the property to his family. Once his brother’s got the property papers signed from him, they threw him out of the house again,” he tells you.

 Dilip adds that the clown called him to join the circus again. “He came back and spent the rest of his life at the circus. He taught people English and Maths. He considered the circus as his family and spent his money to fulfill his co-artists’ needs,” he tells you.

In all his life, Dilip says, he never encounter an aggressive animal in the circus. “Animals don’t become aggressive without a reason. The most common one being if a female caretaker is menstruating.  If she is, the animals can smell blood and there are high chances of them going wild again. Therefore, we always maintained transparency with all the caretakers. If any of the girl was due for the month, she would come and inform us and we wouldn’t let her go near the animals. Hence, no accidents were reported at my circus,” he tells you.

Corona has been another big challenge in Dilip’s life and in order to adapt to the situation he thought of taking the circus online. “We had so many plans of reinventing the circus. We thought of introducing animated animals through technology. But then the lockdown happened and it was hard to sustain. We were able to pay our artists for one month, but then our funds got exhausted. That’s when a circus fan Lakshaya Foundation came up with an idea to take the circus online. Now we have gone online with a digitally produced show Life Is A Circus. This is a virtual fundraiser event and is aimed to raise awareness for the cause and benefit the Rambo Circus artists and their families to come back strong and revive from the difficult situation. The show was available on BookMyShow,” he tells you.

It is a welcome step and people loved to see the circus online. “We got good response from people. This is definitely a testing time and most of the children are  left home bound. Hence, getting to watch their favourite circus online was a treat for the children,” he tells you.

Dilip has a request to make to the Government. “The circus artists are not recognised by the Government. They don’t get any facility as compared to other artists. I want the Government to recognise this art form too and provide the artists with basic facilities, if not more. In many countries, there is a school in the circus premises for the artists’ children so that they don’t waste their time and get into drugs. But in India, we don’t have any facility. There are annual circus festivals that happen abroad and many countries participate in them, but it’s a shame that there is no one to represent India. I want to see the National Flag there and for this we need the Government’s support,” he says.

It is important for the artists to engage and communicate with the circus artists of other countries so that they can enhance their craft, he says.

“There is a lot to learn from other countries and for this we have to attend the annual festivals. Circus artists get more respect outside India. They are paid in lakhs. The ticket of a show for one person starts from `15,000 there whereas in India it is just 100 or 200 bucks. If we will  increase the price, no one will come. There is a lot to be changed for the artists in India in order to take the art high,” he tells you.

He adds and tells you that the USP of the circus are two sisters.

“The USP of our circus are two sisters who enact aerial acts. They are the best of the best. People from all over India come to watch their performance, they are that good,” he tells you.

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