For the Love of the Show

by Holly Hildebrand

Indian Circus, by Mary Ellen Mark
Foreward by John Irving
Chronicle Books, 1993, 107 pages, $40

Twenty-five years ago, a hippo in a pink tutu helped seduce the eye of Mary Ellen Mark. During her first trip to India, when she and a friend went to the circus, she fell in love, not only with the country, but with its big tops. Still in thrall two decades later to the “beauty and innocence” of the circus, she took, in 1989 and 1990, most of the seventy-two photographs that form the core of this book.
These are not photographs about performances however; they are photographs about people, animals, and the families created while working endlessly and relentlessly to preserve the “magic fantasy” of aninstitution. In touching detail, Mark shows us young girls dutifully practicing their acrobatic routines, contorting their bodies into incredible shapes; later, exhausted, one, still in full makeup, sleeps on a pallet with her lipstick, powder and comb within reach.
In his foreword, novelist John Irving, who was with Mark when she took some of these photographs, points out the “atavistic and compassionate life” of the Indian circus. For the child acrobats, he notes, the circus, despite its tough routine of performance, practice, rest, and more practice, is a humane alternative, an escape from begging, starvation orprostitution.
Indeed, in one of the many moving interviews that Mark collected in her prefaces, Pinky, a ten-year-old girl who is one of India's most famous contortionists, describes what her circus life means to her. "Only when I came to the circus, that's the life I remember. Before that I don’t remember. Even when I’m old I’ll be in the circus. Circus life is good, if I had not come here, it would not be good at all. Here nobody hits me. When I’m big, I’ll become a superstar in the circus. Then I'll travel all over. Everywhere in the world. Everywhere."
The Indian circus is also a place for what many would think of as the grotesque. Several of Mark's photographs focus on dwarves, but through her eyes we see not freaks, but touching human beings. In the first of the book photograph, the dwarf-clown Usman joyfully carries his normal-sized infant son down a dusty road at the Jumbo Circus in Bombay. Stretched out on a cot, behind netting, we see the face of exhaustion on another dwarf. Like the children with no place in the outsideworld, the dwarves find acceptance in the circus. The photo of Usman in clown makeup,standing next to two performers dressed in John Wayne-type gear, while a study in contrasts, is also a portrait of acceptance.
Even the animals become more than beasts in the extended family of the Indian circus. In one amazing photograph taken in 1974, Mark shows us Raja, the star chimpanzee of the Gemini Circus, pushing the baby carriage of a two-year-old girl,the daughter of a trainer. "Chimpanzees are notoriously dangerous," Mark says of the photograph. "I could see that this must be a very special animal for someone to trust it with a baby."
That trust is pervasive; in the photograph that has been chosen for the dust jacket, the elephant Shyamawraps his trunk around the neck of histrainer, Ram Prakash Singh, in the Great Golden Circus at Ahmedabad. What's fascinating, besidesthe inherent danger is the looks in the eyes of man and beast; Shyama stares slyly at the camera, while his master's gaze isa strange mixture of wild-eyed calm. "Animals are not innocent," says an assistant trainer inMark's preface. “The more you look after them, the more treacherous they are, but the four-legged things are still better than the two-legged things.
Such a sentiment could be the theme for many of Mark’s photographs. In a 1989 photograph at the Royal Circus, Arjun and his chimpanzee Mira sit side by side, their aims around each other, a pose closer than some in ordinary family albums. But the risk of attack is always there, and Mark experienced it herself when she entered the cage to take the photograph of wild animal trainer Pratap Singh, with his lion, Tex, who was far from being in a good mood that day.
Mark writes that the Indian circuses were "reminiscent of a purity of days gone by, an innocence impossible to find in Western culture." She documents this poignantly, in photographs ranging from one of a boy peeking sheepishly into the shack-like room of a neighbor girl, to an old man tenderly holding two of his performing dogs while another one expertly poses, to girls dressed in glittering costumes so in contrast to their dusty, impoverished surroundings. But Mark's project was rife with difficulties; owners feared they would be portrayed negatively, and the circuses, which are highly competitive, often kept their schedules secret until the last moment. Yet because the Indian circus may be a dying art—the number of big tops decreased from fifty-two in the 1960s to half that number today—Mark finally received the cooperation, albeit sometimes limited, of circus owners who though her photographs might help them survive. She then followed and documented eighteen itinerant circuses.
The photographs impress because they are about people. People, in the widest of spectrums, have always been Mark’s subject—from junkies, to the infirm, to Mother Teresa, to white supremacists. These circus photographs portray people of home—yet we sense that for some of these performers the circus will not offer enough. Pratap Singh, who trains both acrobats and wild animals, explained it like this to Mark: “We’ve kept them (child acrobats) so tenderly, but when it comes time to leave, they turn their faces and they just go. What happens in my heart hen is like the biggest mountain when they put the dynamite to break it. That’s what it feels like, and then they just leave.”

Holly Hildebrand is a freelance writer and former newspaper photo editor.

Top