The Dying Glory of Indian Circus

There was a time when the Indian circus shone in its full glory. Circus industry was loved by people of all ages alike. What happened to this industry now? Where have the artists gone? Why its luster is fading away? How Indian Circus did come into existence?


India has a long tradition of street performers and travelling entertainers. But the origin of the Indian Circus in today’s form dates back to the late nineteenth century.

Philip Astley, an English equestrian and circus inventor, credited Vishnupant Chatre as the originator of Indian Circus. He initiated this art form in India under the patronage of the Raja of Kurduwadi. Chatre was in charge of the stables of the Raja. He was an eminent equestrian and singer. He founded The Great Indian Circus and had its first performance in 20th March 1880. His team performed throughout the country as well as foreign territories such as Ceylon, South East Asia and North America. The audience admired him everywhere. The only place where he could not match the size and magnificence of his competitors was North America. So he decided to continue his pursuit within India.

During his tour in Tellicherry (Kerala), Chatre met Keeleri  Kunhikanan, a master of martial arts and gymnastics. Keeleri was appointed as an acrobats trainer in The Great Indian Circus. In 1901, he opened a circus school at Chirakkara near Tellicherry, which later became the circus epicenter of India. The school produced a long list of performers who later started their own circus companies. Some of these companies were Grand Malabar Circus (1904), Whiteway Circus (1922), Great Ramayan Circus (11924) etc. Thus, Kerala became the “Cradle of Indian Circus”.

To honour the legacy of Keeleri Kunhikannan, the Government of Kerala started a Circus Academy in Thalassery.

Keeleri Kunhikannan is regarded as the “Father of Indian Circus”.

In its full glory:

Circuses were a major form of spectator entertainment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With a team of various range of artists including clowns, acrobats, trained animals, trapeze acts, musicians, dancers, tightrope walkers, jugglers, magicians, ventriloquists and other performance oriented artists, circus attracted huge crowd whenever they visited a city. They have enraptured their audiences since many years. But today their survival has become  a question mark.

A dying industry:

Indian circuses are on the verge of extinction. Only a few circuses are left in India today, down from 300 two decades ago. The circus managers predict that soon no grounds will be left to hold a circus. Some of the reasons for this downfall are:

  • Indian circus companies keep their affairs as trade secret. It is mostly hereditary affair and confined within a few people. This acts as a barrier in entry of efficient persons.
  • The companies feel that circus acrobatics require intensive training from childhood. Earlier children as small as 10 years of age were trained to become circus artists. In light of Supreme Court’s ban on child employment below the age of 14 in 2011, the companies are facing a dearth of human resource.
  • A popular genre of performance and attraction for the audience ceased to exist when the government of India prohibited the use of wild animals for entertainment purposes in 1997.
  • With access to television and other forms of e-entertainment, the circus acts have no longer remained unique. The majority of acts which were once exclusive to the circus are now performed on television, including juggling, acrobatics, gymnastics and aerial acts
  • Indian families consider circus as a risky profession and do not allow their children to choose this as a profession. We do not see dynasties of artists in India as seen in Western counterpart.
  • Circus artists retire at an early age of 40. After which they are left with no other option but to do manual work. Lack of security discourages new people to take up this profession.


Here are a few suggestions to revive this traditional art form:

  • Circus can be used to make the dying arts more appealing to the masses. This would attract more viewers.
  • The government should provide for financial protection to the artists post-retirement. At present, Kerala is the only state to provide pension to veteran and needy artists.
  • Learning circus acts is similar to learning an art form. The government should set up circus training academy to promote this art as a profession. It should be similar to sports academy; with a well-defined syllabus and regular academics.
  • The companies need to update themselves to attract the younger generation. Mr. Gopinath Muthukad, a noted magician from Kerala, announced to launch a show called “Circus Castle” in Thiruvananthapuram that would combine circus acts with magic tricks.

I find it heartwarming that despite of enormous challenges faced from television and internet, Indian circus companies are trying to get back to life and revive their grandeur in the entertainment realm.