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Indian circuses fight for life

| Friday, May 17, 2013, 9:45 p.m.
The Rambo Circus, and others throughout India, grapple with rising rents for field space, shrinking revenues and growing entertainment options. AP Photo

MUMBAI, India — In the early morning heat and dust, daily practice at the Rambo Circus is in full swing. A trapeze creaks as two performers perfect their throws. A Colombian daredevil shouts to his colleagues scrambling atop a giant set of spinning wheels called the Ring of Death.

Looking on with worry is circus manager John Matthew. For 38 years, he has been in the business of entertaining people throughout southern India. But there's little to smile about these days. The big top set up in a desolate field outside Mumbai seats 3,000 people. Recently, fewer than 100 tickets have been sold.

While circuses in other countries struggle to compete with an increasing array of entertainment options, India's have faced a cataclysm.

In the 1990s, 300 circuses operated throughout the country. That number has dwindled to about 30, says Matthew. And many of those are being hammered by the rising rents for field space, shrinking revenues and — crucially — two Supreme Court rulings that took away the industry's main attractions.

“After 10 or 15 more years, there may not be any circus at all in India,” Matthew says, sitting at a folding table outside the canvas tent he uses as both office and living quarters.

Circuses once held legendary status in India as entertainment for everyone from princes to pariahs. The biggest names pitched their tents in town centers, drawing huge crowds night after night.

In the 1990s, India's Supreme Court banned the use of wild animals in circuses, citing widespread neglect of lions, bears, monkeys and panthers. Then, two years ago, it banned child performers.

“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 activist group Bachpan Bachao Andolan said in the lawsuit charging exploitation of young children that led to the ban.

Matthew, however, disagrees with both court bans. He remembers fondly his early days in the circus when there was a menagerie of trained tigers, elephants and other exotic animals that were the main draw for audiences.

“We loved our animals, and our business depended on them. So we took good care of them,” he insists. Now the circus has only four elephants, and Matthew says the Ministry of Environment is considering taking them away, too.

As for child labor, he says, circuses used to give a skill and livelihood to poor children unable to go to school.

With a shortage of homegrown performers, Indian circuses have turned to foreign acts. That's how the three Colombian performers and their Ring of Death come to the Rambo Circus.

At Rambo Circus' temporary home, a 1 p.m. performance is canceled because of poor ticket sales, but the 4 p.m. show has an audience of about 250, mostly parents with young children.

The show leads with the Ring of Death, with Carlos leaping in and out of the spinning rings. Ethiopians come out dancing to an African beat.

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