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Children and the Indian Circus

The Indian circus has been going through a crisis since the environment ministry banned the training and performance of wild animals in 1991; now with the Supreme Court ban on employment of children in circuses it faces a new difficulty. While exploitation, sexual abuse, inadequate healthcare and issues of remuneration need to be addressed, it should also be recognised that children have always figured prominently in the history of physical training and culture in circuses. The present circumstances could bring down the edifice of the 140-year old Indian circus for good.

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Children and the Indian Circus
proposed to notify circus as a “hazardous industry”. According to them, at least 500 girls are illegally employed in about 50 circuses across India. The instability in Nisha P R their life due to the “nomadic existence”

The Indian circus has been going through a crisis since the environment ministry banned the training and performance of wild animals in 1991; now with the Supreme Court ban on employment of children in circuses it faces a new difficulty. While exploitation, sexual abuse, inadequate healthcare and issues of remuneration need to be addressed, it should also be recognised that children have always figured prominently in the history of physical training and culture in circuses. The present circumstances could bring down the edifice of the 140-year old Indian circus for good.

Nisha P R (nichukomal@gmail.com) is pursuing doctoral research at the Department of History, University of Delhi.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
August 13, 2011

O
n 18 April 2011, the Supreme Court banned the employment and performance of children below 14 years of age in Indian circuses. Under Article 21A, the Court ordered the government to issue suitable notifications prohibiting the employment of children in circuses within two months from the date of judgment. The bench also directed the centre to conduct simultaneous raids in all circus companies to liberate children and check if their fundamental rights were being violated. The petition was filed by the non-governmental organisation Bachpan Bachao Andolan, which argued that children working in circuses underwent exploitative labour, sexual abuse, bondage and servitude:

The petition has been filed in public interest under Article 32 of the Constitution in the wake of serious violations and abuse of children who are forcefully detained in circuses, in many instances, without any access to their families under extreme inhuman conditions. There are instances of sexual abuse on a daily basis, physical abuse as well as emotional abuse. The children are deprived of basic needs of food and water.

The petitioners further elaborate that they had appealed to all the major circus company owners to stop “trafficking, bondage, child labour and other violations of child rights” and held campaigns in front of many circuses. The petitioners

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and the lack of formal education are serious problems associated with their work at the circus. Other issues are cramped spaces, inadequate food, erratic sleep timings, poor sanitation, absence of healthcare personnel, high risk factor of the acrobatics, paltry remuneration, strict terms of contract, and above all, the daily routine in circuses hindering all-round develop ment. However, the rescued children are proposed to be kept in care and protective homes unless their parents are willing to take them.

First Animals, Now Children

This ruling is certainly a fateful moment for the Indian circus fraternity, just like the order of the environment ministry banning the training and performance of wild animals such as bears, monkeys, tigers, lions and panthers two decades ago, on 2 March 1991. The order, based on the 1960 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, took away approximately 400 animals from circuses, and relocated them to many zoos across the country. However, the Circus Owners’ Federation and the Circus Employees’ Union filed a petition in the High Court of Kerala challenging the

order (Petition OP No 2636, 1999,

M A Sasidharan and Others vs Union of India). The key argument of the petition was that the order threatened the lives of around 40,000 animal trainers/caretakers/

COMMENTARY

handlers/performers. It further argued that the order threatened a century -old historical tradition of animal training and performance.

None of the animal trainers/caretakers / handlers/performers/owners were given any kind of compensation. Many of the animals died an untimely death or encoun tered fatal situations in the zoos and sanctuaries where they were taken after the “rescue”. Interestingly, the Indian Circu s Employees’ Union, which had joined hands with the circus company owners against the state in the case of animals, stood with the Bachpan Bachao Andola n against the circus owners. The absence of animals has been compensated to an extent with the import of foreign artiste s from Africa and Europe. Negotiating the absence of children would now be a critical problem before the circus community. No doubt it will turn the structure of the Indian circus upside down.

‘For Us, Circus Is Everything’

With acrobatics being a dominant activity in Indian circuses, children have always had a significant role in the ring. Items such as high wire, boneless, seesaw acrobat, bamboo pole, China plate are almost exclusively for child performers. This is because circus acrobatics demand absolute balancing of the body, and a child’s body can master the skill better and with greater ease. Moreover, circus trainers believe that a child’s body, just like that of a kalaripayatt practitioner, can be moulded in accordance with the requirement since it is flexible. Circus acrobatics in India has adapted some of the initial exercises, dietary and medicinal practices from the three physical cultures of kalaripayatt, Indian wrestling and gymnastics. Strict diet and strenuous training are a fundamental part of circus acrobatics training, which usually begins early morning and continues for about five hours. Many of the complex exercises cannot be performed on a full stomach. However, an outsider may perceive such a stringent training regime differently. For instance, as the Bachpan Bachao Andolan petition observes, “… life of these children begins at dawn with training instructors’ shouting abuses, merciless beatings and two biscuits and a cup of tea”. Many maste r trainers can sense the temperament of a body immediately and identify the item to which the body of the child would be most suited. The legendary masters of the early 20th century – Keeleri Kunhikannan and Moosari Raman – trained children in their circus kalaries and many renowned artistes who have excelled in circus acrobatics are those who received training as children.

This is not to argue that all is well with the children employed in our circuses. There are cases of sexual abuse and crude training. There are missing children and fatal accidents. During my fieldwork in Thalassery (north Malabar), many circus artistes have shared their childhood experiences of starvation, beating, paltry wages , and the rigid hierarchy of elders. But it should also be recognised that circuses have provided an alternate space and livelihood for children from around the subcontinent. Many children from Bengal, Nepal and Assam who join circuses are from the lower social strata with very poor economic conditions. The words of Anju and Megha, artistes in the Royal Circu s from a very early age, are telling,

August 13, 2011 vol xlvI no 33 EPW Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

“We hardly remember the faces of our [biological] parents. We only know that we are from Thalassery. We do not know our castes, for us circus is everything.”

The Circus Academy being established by the Kerala government at Kundoormala in Thalassery could set the directive principles regarding the training of children.

The recent attempt by the Gemini-Jumbo circus owners to provide formal education to children is a noteworthy attempt. Children below 14 years of age were provided housing from where they were sent for schooling at Dharmadam, while also being trained in circus acrobatics. If the state and society really want circus acrobatics

-to survive in this part of the world, the academy should provide proper training in circus acrobatics, rathe r than gymnastics or sports, along with formal education to the children. This could bring more children into this field without apprehension or fear, and the circus could have the good esteem it deserves.

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Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
August 13, 2011 vol xlvI no 33

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