IT’S EASY TO MISS THE CIRCUS ACADEMY in Thalassery, sandwiched as it is between bakeries on a street festooned with red flags, a lonely building hidden behind a bus-stand. Entering through a side door one morning in September, I found myself in a large cinema hall that had been stripped down and cemented, a projection screen hanging limply on one wall and a few spring mattresses scattered over the floor. A woman in a nightie peeped out from behind a door to say that the students were out, and would be back at 5 o’clock.
The academy was set up in 2010 by Kerala’s then ruling Left Democratic Front coalition. According to Sreedharan Champad, a former trapeze artist who has been documenting the history of the Indian circus for the past two decades, whom I met in Thalassery, “The opening of the academy was a campaign move by the Left Democratic Front coalition ahead of the 2011 elections. But the plan went up in smoke when they lost the election two months after the inauguration.”
The academy was intended to promote the circus in Thalassery, a coastal town in northern Kerala which had once been one of India’s most thriving centres of circus. Keeleri Kunhikannan, a gymnastics instructor, founded a training centre here in 1901, after meeting and being inspired by Vishupant Chatre, who established the first Indian circus company in Maharashtra towards the end of the 19th century. Kunhikannan’s centre produced a number of performers who were vital to the Indian circus industry in the mid-20th century, such as MV Shankaran, the founder of the famous Gemini Circus. Champad explained that during the 1940s and 1950s, many poor families sent their children to work in circuses, where their expenses, food and clothing were taken care of. “Before you knew it, 90 percent of people—men, women and children—in the circuses across the country were from Thalassery,” he said.