The animals are banned and the thrill is gone, but the people remain extraordinary. Chitvan Gill’s photographs aim to evoke memories of childhood joy
Driving through the choked environs of East Delhi and its teetering tenements, I chance upon a sudden clearing. The sight of the beautiful tent pitched in the middle of the large field emerges like a mirage out of the dust. My curiosity is piqued—it’s a circus! How could I resist?
Two hours later the show was over. This was not the circus of my childhood memory. This was a dying spectacle. Something vital was missing, the core was empty. Suddenly it struck home: there were no animals. It was as if the ban on animals had wrenched the gut out of the circus.
I remember that mélange of activity, as men, women and beasts came together. A fantastical world was created—of the quickened heart, of fear, of danger, of laughter, of sublime joy. Suddenly the child’s mind registered the possibility of an extended world, the closeness of man and beast bound by a deep animal impetus that ran through the blood, the impetus of a primal love.
The circus is a unique creation, a joyous world. We tend to forget, though: it is also a place of refuge. It is a society harmonious in itself, a way of life that is impossible in any other theatre of life. If governments and activists have the power to ban, then equally they have the power to monitor abuse or cruelty. To lose this extraordinary world is to lose something of intrinsic value in the urban jungle.
As I walk among the tents taking photographs, one of the performers, a young girl from Nepal, comes up to me. There is fear in her eyes. All around I feel the oppressive weight of fear—the fear that, any day, the circus will end. “What are these photographs for?” As I try to explain, she takes hold of my arm, “You must understand, the circus is a very good thing, for young girls who are not well off, educated, the circus is a very good thing. You understand, no? You understand what I’m saying?” I look into her eyes, ringed with tears. I understand. It’s time to understand what these alternative worlds mean to those who have few choices in the “real” world.
This photo essay was published in the April-June issue of The Indian Quarterly magazine. The theme of the issue was “Black & White”.