COVID-19 forces circus queen to become fish vendor

Sarada Singha, a 45-year-old chief performer of her Kolkata based circus company, had everything going right for her until the COVID-19 outbreak and the subsequent nationwide lockdown forced her to become a fish vendor to manage her two-square-meal for her family. The corona spread forced shut her circus shows and she along with other members of her team are now grappling with an uncertain future and poverty.

While the Nepali woman Sarada sells fish at a roadside market in Silchar, the other circus performers — clowns, jugglers, trapeze players, ring masters, technicians, singers, make-up artist, guards, including her husband Ratan Singha are working as daily wage earners’ and even taking up menial jobs.

The 160-member circus team, comprising performers and assistants belonging to West Bengal and Assam, came to Hailakandi (in southern Assam) in January to perform their show in famous “Rabindra Mela”. From Hailakandi, the circus party moved to Karinganj to perform the shows in another famous “Netaji Mela” in January end and then in next month to the “Gandhi Mela” in Silchar, a major commercial city in southern Assam, Mizoram, Manipur and Tripura.

“Initially, our circus owner in Kolkata financially helped us, but gradually the proprietor of the D. K. Enterprise, which owns the circus troupe, expressed his helplessness forcing us to search for alternate works. But, because of the lockdown, most of our co-performers and co-workers had no work and no money. For days we starved starving. Our lives were devastated, our dreams wrecked, perished,” Sarada, a lone woman vendor in the market, told IANS.

Sarada’s husband Ratan Singha said that besides the 160 men and women, some of the couples have minor children. “One of the performers delivered a baby earlier this month in a local government hospital in Silchar. Besides, we have two horses as part of our circus squad. During the normal working time, we feed the horses with “Chola”, but now we take them to a nearby river bank or field to feed the grass,” Ratan told IANS.

He said, “Among our co-performers and co-workers, there are people belonging to the Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian communities, an exceptional combination of religious diversity. For many years we have been working together as a big one family. The local administrations, clubs, NGOs and even individuals provided us with various relief materials and foods, but we need big supplies of food and money for our teammates,” the middle aged Ratan with gloomy face said while explaining their distress and uncertainty.

Sarada, mother of two daughters, said that she was 11-years-old when she was forced to join the circus due to the poverty of her parental family and afterwards earned huge kudos during the past 34 years. “I was like a princess or a queen during the peak of my career. As our circus party lived together and moved together in many places of Bengal, Assam and other states, one day I fell in love with Ratan, we married. Not only us, there are so many love stories in our circus party. My elder daughter is already married and 15-year-old younger daughter Punam is a good performer in various events of the circus,” the woman shared moments from their nomadic life.

Once striking entertainers, these 160 hapless men, women and children are now spending their days and nights with their circus instruments, apparatus, accessories, big ladders and other assets and valuables at the two government school grounds in Silchar.

“The Cachar District Administration has told us that they would facilitate our return to our homes in West Bengal. But what will we do there, how will we survive after returning home. Our homes are like non-existent. Poverty is our life long affair. We would be happy to stay in south Assam as the people here love us and are helping us a lot. We are genuinely hopeful that we would again come back to perform our various performances in the circus to entertain people and manage our livelihood as well,” Akbar Ali, another young performer, told IANS.

Circuses usually get one or two shows every day, mainly during winter and autumn. They move from one area to another every 10-15 days or even after a month. Employees are paid around Rs 10,000-Rs 25,000 per month, depending on their experience, skills and the number of days they have put in.

Ali said that the government had banned the use of big cats and some animals for performances in the circuses a few years ago, which had dealt a body blow to this amusement business, forcing many small and medium-sized companies to shut their group. “We are deeply frightened that COVID-19 may put the final nail in the coffin of this century-old form of entertainment — leaving trapeze artists, clowns, knife-throwers and other experienced performers jobless.”