On a torrid Sunday afternoon in a suburb of Chennai, India, spectators, mostly families with young children, start to trickle in slowly to catch the first show of the day. While finishing his lunch, K. Chakravarthy, 48, asks one of the boys to start the generator.
Within minutes, the two towering loudspeakers inside the big top come to life with regional music. The boys get ready in their quarters while Chakravarthy and his wife, C. Reena, prep in their spacious tent along with two recent female recruits. (The naming custom of Dravidians from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu is to use the first letter of their father’s name followed by their given name, hence the official monikers of Chakravarthy and Reena.)
Chakravarthy seems calm and composed, as is always the case, but today he’ll have to be on his toes from the get-go. He’ll be filling in for some of his missing crew who are out of town visiting their families. It’s almost show time and the music stops abruptly. From behind the stage Chakravarthy, adorned in a velvety, glittering outfit, announces the opening act – the lasso artist – in a husky, booming ringmaster voice. A minute later, he enters the arena accompanied by a rousing dance number.
“Pasi echchil ella nu paakadhu
Thookam manna tharaiya nu paakadhu
Kaadal jhadi madham ae paakadhu”
(Thirst doesn’t differentiate between wine or water
Sleep doesn’t differentiate between bed or rug
Love doesn’t differentiate between caste or creed)
Chakravarthy hails from a village called Pakkampalayam in Tamil Nadu. He lost his mother at a very young age. His father, a skilled laborer, remarried when Chakravarthy was around five or six. Two years later, he and a friend saw their first-ever circus show, Bharat Circus. Little did he know then that those three hours of extravaganza would lay the seed for his long career in this industry.
His older brother soon got married and moved. Around the same time, his father and stepmother welcomed a new child. The arrival of his stepbrother turned his world upside down. Angry at his stepmother and resenting playing second fiddle to her son, he ran away to live with his aunt in the booming city of Bangalore. He was just ten years old and had only five rupees in his pocket, which covered his bus fare.
Upon reaching the city he realized that he didn’t know exactly where his aunt lived. With not a paisa in his pocket, he loitered on the streets for a week before a good samaritan approached him and said, “Hey, who are you? Do you have a job?” He was hired as a busboy in a restaurant and paid thirty rupees (approximately fifty cents) a month. Within nine months, he managed to save about three hundred rupees (roughly five dollars).
When one of his colleagues at the restaurant decided to leave his job in search of greener pastures, he asked Chakravarthy if he’d like to join him. Within hours, both the kids were on a train traveling to Hassan in the state of Karnataka. Once they arrived at their destination, young Chakravarthy’s confidant split. When he realized he’d been robbed, he approached the railway station canteen owner and told him of his predicament. The sympathetic owner gave him a menial job at the canteen.
A month and a half later, a huge and peculiar train chugged to a halt at the station. Chakravarthy was transfixed by what was in front of him: around forty cars filled to the brim with men, women, exotic animals and circus paraphernalia. This scene brought back vivid memories of the circus he had seen in his hometown. As the circus performers were having refreshments at the canteen, he solicited advice from one of them on how he could join. He was told he was too young. But, determined this was the life he wanted, he eventually approached another circus, Geeta Circus, in a nearby town, and they hired him to run errands in the kitchen. Within a year, he started training with the troupe and participating in group acts before progressing onto solo acts.
That was over three decades ago, and from then on, it’s been one hell of a ride with Chakravarthy hopping from one circus to another while rising through the ranks, going from kitchen assistant to now owning his own circus. But the journey was not without a few speed bumps.
In many ways Chakravarthy is the antithesis to the ostentatious showman typically associated with the circus. He is tanned, slightly built, and possesses a weather-beaten face, all byproducts of his thirty-odd years of laborious life under the big top. But cometh the hour, cometh the man. When the show starts, Chakravarthy metamorphoses into the proverbial butterfly and enraptures audiences with his deftness and daredevilry in the ring.
Chakravarthy founded Reena National Circus last August with only Reena, 35, by his side. Previously, they were both star performers at the Global Circus. They had everything going for them. But as fate would have it, both of them were dealt a massive blow in the form of a freak accident during their Aerial Ring Act on November 13, 2013. The couple, balancing on either side of the ring, had just ascended to the top when the rope that held the ring snapped.
Chakravarthy bore the brunt of the twenty-foot drop and spent the next three months in the hospital with a pelvic fracture. Once he was back on his feet after six months, things just weren’t the same. He was delegated to menial jobs and no longer wielded the power and influence he had prior to the accident. Unable to tolerate the second-rate treatment, he quit Global Circus. Devastated but determined to prove a point, he created Reena National Circus using his personal savings and the money he and his wife received as final settlements from the circus owners.
These were trying times for the couple as they started the circus from scratch. They did it all – buying material and sewing the tents, embellishing their outfits, recruiting performers, purchasing garb and accessories for their acts, teaching performers the drills – in a span of three months, while tallying up losses to the tune of 200,000 rupees ($3,000).
Reena and Chakravarthy got hitched in 2012, but they go way back – they were good friends before developing feelings for each other. Chakravarthy’s first marriage was a tumultuous one; he and his first wife have been separated for ten years now, while Reena’s first husband, a trapeze artist, fell to his death some eight years ago.
Reena, who’s of Nepalese origin, was barely five when she compelled her parents to let her join the circus that had come to her town, lured by the prospect of “wearing fancy clothes,” as she says. They acceded to her demands and that was the last she ever saw of them. She can’t remember what her parents look like, their names, or where they live for that matter. She doesn’t know of a life beyond the circus gates. Chakravarthy and Sani, her sixteen-year-old son from her first marriage, are the only family she has now. Sani is a competent performer and part of two ensemble acts in the circus, as an acrobat and a clown.
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” is the couple’s mantra.
One of their recent contractors took them for a ride, and a lot of their performers have deserted them since they first started, but despite the struggle they are hopeful of a reversal in their fortunes. “I don’t want to mint millions,” Chakravarthy says. “A modest circus with a disciplined ten-member crew, [one that] acts on par with international standards, and love and appreciation from one and all.” Reena nods in approval.
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Naveen P M is a freelance photojournalist based in Chennai.