Photojournalist Saibal Das travelled with circus people for a year to capture their difficult lives
While following differentcircus troupes across the country, from Jaipur to Kolkata, and then on to Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Saibal Das’ initial approach was as a spectator, enjoying the glamour of the ringside view. But once he got a chance to meet the circuswalas, he began delving deeper, hoping to get a better insight into their loneliness and insecurities; what it meant to be outsiders, living on the fringes of society. “Getting up for practice every day at 6am, be it winter or summer … I was just trying to understand how tough their lives are,” said Das.
What started out as a project culminated in a book: Circus Girl (Seagull Books). “My focus was on the circus women; that was my theme. They are not supposed to go out or leave the company tent without any record. Nor are they supposed to mingle with the male artists. It’s like living in a cage,” he told The Indian Quarterly. “Earlier, they used to come from Kerala. Nowadays, they mostly come from poor families in Nepal and Bengal. It’s a pathetic life. Wherever there’s a circus, they have to pitch their tents.”
The life of a circus performer has changed dramatically since these photographs were taken in the last decade. Now, more attention is given to foreign artists, especially those from Africa and Russia, who get to rent rooms, rather than live in tents like their Indian counterparts do. The ban on animals being trained for performance, though for very good reasons, has reduced the attraction of the traditional Indian circus. “For me, as a photographer, and for many other people, the main attraction of the circus was the animals. In my town they would go around to show them to the people. That fun has gone.”
During his involvement with the circus, Das cherished the human relationships most. Once, while travelling in Bengal, “a boy, not from the circus, fell in love with one of the girls from the troupe while she was performing. They got engaged. I was there the day he came to pick her up from the circus to take her to her new home. These are the small things I enjoyed.”
Saibal Das has worked as a photojournalist for The Telegraph, Outlook and India Today. He is known for his book, Circus Girl, and was awarded the first prize at the Humanitarian Photo Awards in Beijing for his work portraying Kerala’s Pulikali (tiger dance).