Bridging The Chasm:

While theatre enjoyed both a political discussion and social relevance, circus suffered from exploitation and problems of poverty.

The commonality between Theatre & Circus

It was a tragedy. One electrician who had climbed the top-most grid in the tent to change a fused electric bulb. He had fallen to his death. We were in shock. Several questions sprung to our mind. There was no time to process the event. 

Meanwhile, the people for the next show were queuing in front of the box office. The shows could not be cancelled and the next show at 4.00 p.m. show had already begun. There was an ambulance and we sent a silent prayer to the deceased – he was taken to the hospital and was declared brought dead.

The next day, the atmosphere inside the tent was palpable. The team’s morale was low. Still, the show went on as usual. Yes, in the tent nobody ate food as respect and affection towards their dear Raja. Here, I also discovered that the names often announced in circus are not their real ones because of different reasons and most of the circus artists do not have any addresses. Their identities are always mysterious. At times, nobody even bothered to know what their actual name and identities were. And perhaps it didn’t seem necessary to know where they came from or what their real names were. They all lived together as a family for years in a tent. They never cancelled a show, rain or shine; or in this case even the death of a crew member. You may ask why? Well, they always perform because it is the ticketed money that keeps them going.

The common ground

After two hours of Raja’s death, I called Anuradha Kapur, a professor at the National School of Drama (NSD) to share this experience and the conditions of Grand Circus. I was doubtful whether we should go ahead with this project anymore with NSD students. After hearing the whole experience Prof. Kapur had just a sentence “Abhilash, I think circus needs some kind of intervention.”

It changed my mind and motivated me to continue with the project. The path to collaboration continued and eventually, NSD signed an MoU (memorandum of understanding) with the Grand Circus Company.

In theatre and circus, there are many similarities and diversities not only in the production process but also in the presentational styles as well. Whatever happens in both these spaces there is a commonality of performance practice and productional methods. The performers of both circus and theatre are confronted with rigorous training for a long period. Despite all these, till today, both were travelling in different boats. There was absolutely no mixing of these streams. Even today, they exist in separate water-tight compartments. Yes, both are performing arts in their pristine purity.

The widening gap

It is surprising that none of the practitioners of either of the art forms considered it important to bring theatre and circus together. It could be because of the differences maintained by the Indian theoreticians of both of these performing forms. The gap, therefore, of these two forms started to grow bigger.

These woes are not baseless. One has to simply trace the history and perception of both these art forms. On one side, since the formation of modern theatre, there is an active political discussion about its very existence, its theatrical utility and its social relevance. On the other side, the circus has no political complexion at all but remained as an art rooted in exploitation and slavery since its emergence in India, back in the early 1900s. Essentially, this question has been haunting my mind. As a theatre director, I ask why do we brand circus as a non-political art form? What is the basis? In fact, the commonality and the similarity of circus and theatre prompted me to think in a creative manner. It urged me to produce a different art form by merging both these forms without changing the congenial ambience available in the vast circus space in their tents.

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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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