The grand collaboration between NSD and Grand Circus came with these footnotes

In the previous article on reinventing the circus industry, we discussed how to include the idea of blending circus and theatre formally into curriculum. Circus was on the verge of extinction in India due to the influx of other entertainment mediums during the 1990s.

Bringing together theatre and circus seemed like the only option to save the art of circus. It is with this intention that discussions started revolving around introducing this idea to the second-year students at National School of Drama or the NSD.

Circus urban art form

Largely, circus has been viewed in our country as a wholesome family entertainment and was almost losing popularity. I thought this confluence of theatre and circus may give it a new lease of life. Or probably we could develop some academic exercises out of the circus ring and the artistes.

With this in mind, I thought I may be able to inspire my students for researching circus as an urban art form, which has a long history and has been revisited and reconsidered world over. As part of the project, I started planning academics on different aspects of the form to include popular cultural idioms, acrobatics, clowning, body movements, shadow puppetry, spectacles, masks and aerial acts.

I was quite sure that the NSD students should share the circus ring with circus artistes while performing. I felt, a student can learn more if he performs along with a circus artiste rather than learning the form and performing by himself.

More so I was also thinking that the young circus artistes can also exchange their skills to modern acting from the teachers and students that will enhance and boost up their overall performance. This will also give more energy to the circus ring. So it became crystal clear that this project would be a collaborative effort between 26 students of NSD and 25 circus artistes along with 15 skilled labours as well as trainers from the circus companies.

The grand idea

Just to jog your memory, I had mentioned in one of the previous articles about multiple times I tried and failed to bring forth the idea of blending theatre with circus. I also wrote about the arduous task of meeting circus artistes and circus owners in this context. Well, after three years of meeting different people in different villages in northern Kerala,

I was disheartened to see no solutions in sight. And I thought that again this idea may go into cold storage if I won’t get a circus company to collaborate in a project like this. In fact, to prove my point, I even showed them clippings of combined performances of circus and theatre artistes in the West, including performances of Circus de Solil.

After running from pillar to post for many weeks, the Grand Circus finally agreed to work together on its own conditions. Again, it was my friend Sasi Kumar who convinced Chandran, the proprietor of Grand Circus Company in Kozhikode, to meet us. Chandran agreed against all odds to collaborate with NSD in a project like this although he made it clear that he won’t be able to invest any money into such collaboration as his circus was running at a very low ebb.

Chandran also demanded that the Grand Circus would only collaborate in this project if NSD could pay them a rental for circus tent, circus equipment and fees for all the participating circus artistes according to the norms of NSD fees structure for such projects.

Savitri (the lady in Blue Sare), the chief trainer and guru to all the artists, including NSD students

We agreed as we had an existing template of pay structure since we had earlier collaborated with gurus of traditional art forms and their team for the similar workshops. Subsequently I visited the Grand Circus along with NSD officials Parag Sarma, who was the production manager and B.S. Rawat from academic department.

We had a sumptuous lunch in Chandran’s tent when the matinee show was going on. One could see how artistes were juggling different roles off and on stage – how they were living in different small tents, some preparing lunch, some having their lunch and some watching TV. Despite these domestic chores and off-stage work, every artiste was aware of their cue to perform and would promptly leave whatever they were doing and enter the ring.

We started shooting the back of the tent with our small video camera with a view to seeing how the life and performance are so naturally interwoven in the circus tents. When the matinee show was over and the audience had left, we entered the main circus tent. Suddenly we saw a man climbing up to the top-most grid to change a fused electric bulb and next thing we saw his body thumped on the mud floor.

Immediately, people started running towards him. We also ran and saw that his body oozing out fresh blood. In the next second, we knew that he was breathing his last.

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Abhilash Pillai is the Professor of Acting and Direction and In-Charge of the Cultural Exchange Program at the National School of Drama NewDelhi and Executive Director of the Asia Theatre Education Centre (ATEC) Central Academy of Drama, Beijing, China. Pillai has collaborated with both international and national theatre production and initiated the first-ever collaboration in India connecting NSD and the Grand Circus, Kerala.

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