ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Circus Man Who Knew Too Much

​Keeleri Kunhikannan, known as the father of Indian circus and whose 160th birth anniversary was celebrated in Kerala in 2015, was “teacher” to countless performance artistes. More significantly, he transformed the rigid caste-based space and culture of the martial art of kalaripayattu into one where different castes, communities and even genders mingled.

Years ago, when I started my doctoral research on the social history of circus in Malabar district in Kerala, the key predicament, as expected, was the lack of conventional archives. Thus memories and memorabilia of the circus community became the major alternative source for me. Indubitably the central figure in this archive was a man called Keeleri Kunhikannan (1855–1939), whom those in the circus community would always reverently refer to as “teacher.” Murkoth Kunhappa, the chronicler of Malabar, notes that in the first decades of the 20th century, in Malabar “teacher” meant nobody else but Kunhikannan (Kunhappa 1951: 35).

The circus community in Kerala considers him to be the father of circus and circus acrobatics in that part of the world. Many of the artistes trained by him went on to perform around the world and teach circus feats to subsequent generations establishing a lineage of teachers, students, owners and performers. The most renowned of these would be his nephew, N P Kannan who became globally known as “Kannan Bombayo.” The story goes that in a show at Berlin in Germany, Adolf Hitler was stunned by Kannan’s spectacular performance which included the rope dance with double back somersaults on a simple slack rope. The Fuhrer is said to have exclaimed “Jumping Devil of India.” Indeed a remarkable historical moment demolishing Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy (Nisha 2015: 15–16).

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Updated On : 28th Aug, 2017
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