Posted by: cochinblogger | September 13, 2010

Lessons from the Circus

The other day I took my kids to see the circus. It was their first visit to the circus, and my first visit since my boyhood in Calcutta. The circus was an annual feature of my schooldays in Calcutta. They would pitch camp in the maidan near-by, and the excitement around the camp was palpable. In the daytime we would hang around the circus tent, climbing the walls of the maidan to get a glimpse of the goings-on inside. At night we could hear the roaring of the lions and tigers. The hauntingly beautiful music of the Peacock Dance wafted outside, borne by the breeze. The boom of the cannon shooting the human cannonball startled at first but then became part of the ambient city noise. The carpets of the circus were supplied by a Malayalee family friend who ran a coir business in the city, so we often got free passes. To think that the carpets that covered the big top, and indeed the entire ground beneath the dome of the tent, were made of coir from Alappuzha!

Seated beside my children, I was transported back to the fantasy world of my own childhood as the performers trooped in one by one (and in groups) to do their thing. The brain willingly suspended disbelief, and marveled at the impossible feats on display. The colorful costumes were a treat for the eyes. The hours whizzed by without my knowing it, and suddenly the show was over. The biggest difference from the shows I remembered from my childhood was the absence of animals such as tigers, lions, and hippos. Instead, there were three camels and an elephant.

I was armed with my camera, and saw much of the circus through the camera lens. From the plethora of pictures that I took, many of them spectacular, I like the first photo in this post best. Why? It’s hardly the most eye-catching photo of the lot. However, for me, this photo best represents the passion and effort that the performers put into their act. Circuses these days are having a hard time making ends meet. Indeed, when I think of the expenses involved in running a circus, and the logistics of feeding and moving so many humans and animals, I wonder how circuses stay out of the red at all. It is more than likely that the performers are paid a pittance. Yet, they trundle out three times a day, and take pride in what they do. OK, you can argue that they have no choice … but go back now and take another look at the photo on top. The man clearly enjoys what he is doing, and is reveling in his mastery. Do we show even a fraction of this man’s attitude in our work? Do we possess even a fraction of this man’s mastery of our work? Remember, what you do is not as important as how you do it.

And, on another tack, how many of us make for a photogenic picture at work? The vast majority of us spend our working lives seated on a chair in front of a desk or computer. That’s not exactly good photographic raw material; heck, it’s practically the position we adopt when shitting. 🙂 The circus artiste is a master at what he does, and our respect is his due (it’s a shame that the audience was not more demonstrative in their appreciation that evening).

The performance was not flawless; where there are thrills, there will be spills. But nobody jeered, not even the backbenchers. When you fall, just pick yourself up and continue; you can always make amends in the next show.

The circus is pure, unadulterated entertainment. It’s the ultimate leveler, turning adult spectators into kids. In today’s entertainment-oriented times, one would expect the circus to be popular, but sadly, there were many empty seats, as you can see from the photo above. We like entertainment, indeed we cannot do without it, but we have got used to having it served to us in our own individual electronic plates in servings of our choice and at times of our choosing. We’ve got used to multi-tasking, to listening to music on our mp3 players while commuting, for example, or having a window with a YouTube video running while working on a spreadsheet in another window, while having a chat window also open. Set aside two whole hours in a hot, noisy, dusty tent where multi-tasking is impossible? Forget it!

Youngsters today are hooked to electronic entertainment. Most of the circus spectators I saw were families with kids; I don’t remember seeing groups of high school and college kids; the circus is probably passe for them. A fellow teacher commented one day that students today (college kids) expect the teacher to entertain them while they sit passively on their benches. It’s a not unreasonable expectation, in my view, as long as the effort is not all on the part of the teacher. After all, in many ways, today we live in an age of entertainment as no other humans have in the past. In fact, according to Linus Torvalds in Just for Fun, entertainment is the end goal of human evolution. Once the basic human needs have been met, what motivates humans is entertainment. (Dare I hope that the entertainment phase will be followed by another e-word phase: the enlightenment phase?)

So, go ahead and entertain yourself by all means, but do not restrict yourself to electronic entertainment; do cast your net wider and embrace non-electronic forms of entertainment such as the circus. Among the most cherished memories of my boyhood are playing simple but thrilling games like Seven Stones on the streets. Seven Stones involves nothing other than a pile of stones and a tennis ball. Today’s kids would look down their noses at such games, I suspect.

OK, enough of sermonizing. You can view 91 circus photos in a gallery here: Hurrah for the Circus!. They are in sequential order, and I have included more than were strictly necessary, in order to document the experience more fully. Every act is represented here by at least one photo. I hope you will visit the circus to support them, but if you cannot, these photos will give you a flavor of the Great Royal Circus.

And last but not least, when you go to watch the circus, surrender to the child in you and enjoy the spectacle; do not try and draw agonized lessons from the experience as I have done here. 🙂

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