Circus Circus, Part#3(Indian Big White Tops)

Some time back, I had written 2 blogs in this series on circus. There I had talked about 2-3 books which I came across, which trace the checkered history of circus, in particular Indian circus. Both these blogs were in Marathi(Part#1, and Part#2). These two blogs covered lives of circus personalities such as Damoo Dhotre(wild animal trainer), circus owner Bandopant Deval, and also a book on history of circus in Marathi titled Circus Circus by Shayamla Shirolkar. I decided to write this part in English as, I came across an English book titled An Album of Indian Big Tops by Sreedharam Champad. This English version is a translation of Malayalam version by the same author. The author is, as the back cover says, a flying trapeze artist, journalist, writer, film script writer as well. He had joined Great Raymon circus in, Calcutta,  in 1956. So unlike, Shirolkar, he has inside and first hand information of circus industry.

In the western countries, circus is referred as white tops, or big top, referring to the circus tent, which is of white color. Hence the book name An Album of Indian Big Tops. The author claims that this the first book covering history of Indian circus, which seems to incorrect claim, as this book is published in 2008. The aforementioned book by Shirolkar was published in 2005 itself . Anyways, the most fascinating aspect of the book by Sreedharan is that it puts a light on the legacy of Kerala and mark it has left on Indian circus industry.  The earlier books(covered in my blog), did talk about this aspect, but briefly.

Indian Circus

History of Indian Circus Book Cover

Thalassery, a town in Kerala, is where India’s first circus art training started by Keeleri Kunhikkannan. This academy is known Kerala Circus Academy. I had talked about it in earlier blog, with a reference to a news item that this academy is on the verge of closure. The traditional martial art of Kerala called kalaripayattu  also must have been at the root of interest of people of Kerala that time to take up adventure of circus. The book does start by talking of Vishnupanth Chatre, pioneer of circus in India. In fact, first three chapters are about the beginning days of circus in India and role played by Maharashtra. Later, books covers how people of Kerala entered into this business. The above mentioned academy kept supplying circus artists to these circuses.

The chapter on Kannan Bombayo, who was called as jumping devil of India is also interesting. It seems that, Adolf Hitler attended and enjoyed his show, when he was touring Germany as part of Bertram Mills circus. There is a chapter on Damoo Dhotre as well, as you cannot miss him when you are talking of Indian circus history. There is a chapter on contribution of circus owner from Kerala called M V Shankaran, who had started Gemini Circus, also big coverage on Kamala Circus owner Damodaran.

There are couple of chapters which talk of visits of circus teams from Russian and also then Czechoslovakia, which also is interesting. There are references to couple of Malayalam films which were shot circuses in Kerala is also fascinating. The first film is Mela(directed by K G George) and other is Thampu(directed by G Aravindan), both have won national awards, seems worth a watch. When you talk of films and circus, you cannot miss Charlie Chaplin’s movie The Circus. Anyways, the topic of films and circus is a topic of separate blog, as there are many of them worldwide.

In the 1950s, the author notes, there were 52 circus companies in India. Our of which 42 were owned(with staff and artists as well), by Kerala. Such was a legacy of Kerala in Indian circus. The book talks of many circus companies which mushroomed during that golden era(from states of Kerala, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Gujarat, Karnataka etc). An appendix with detailed list of these circus companies would have enhanced the book further. Lastly, a note on translation itself. The translation seems to sloppy and is containing many spelling mistakes, incorrect sentence structure and lack of lucidity. The diligent editing would have increased the quality of the book greatly. This book of 153 pages, is priced at INR 899/- which too steep. It is available on Amazon, if you are interested.

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