When the circus came to town

February 25, 2018 @ 2:01PM
By Alan Teh Leam Seng

The crimson evening sky greets me as I step out of the mall and head towards the open-air car park. With scenes from the film that barely ended half an hour ago still dancing in my mind, I cast my gaze towards Sekolah Kebangsaan Wan Sulaiman Sidek across the road.

The school’s vast compound brings back fond memories. Nearly five decades ago, I attended what was to become the first of several circus performances there. Although the production back then pales in comparison with the grand set ups in The Greatest Showman movie, I remain convinced that nothing beats being present at the Big Top and experiencing the electrifying atmosphere personally.

As I’m driving home, I suddenly recall having a circus programme book which was given to me by my parents several years back. Secured in a protective plastic sleeve, the little booklet is still in pristine condition despite its age.

Bought at a nominal sum of 20 cents on the same day we watched the circus performance, I’m sure my parents kept the booklet all these years primarily for sentimental reasons. Flipping through the pages must have brought to life the joyous laughter and excited squeals from my sister and I long after we left home to live our own lives.

Down memory lane

The moment I retrieve the yellow coloured booklet from my study, a flood of memories comes coursing out. The photo montage on the front cover featuring agile acrobats and performing animals quickly peels back the years, transporting me back to the memorable day of May 25, 1969.

Entitled The Great Royal Circus Of India, the booklet’s first few pages are dedicated to the troupe’s two world tours. Right from the start, the organisers had stated their pledge to ‘amuse, entertain, thrill and excite’ spectators in the Big Top. It promised a two hour long presentation unlike anything seen before. The troupe consisted of artistes, both individual and in groups, who’d risen to eminence in their own sphere of expertise.

The limited forms of mass entertainment available back in the 1950s and 1960s heralded the golden age of the circus. Coupled with relatively affordable tickets, entire families could troop into the huge tent, sit back and drift away into a world of perfectly executed acts.

As I continue reading further, the narration starts to peel back the years even more, sending me back to 1923 when Sitarampant Walavalkar initially came up with the idea of starting his own circus. During those formative days, Sitarampant’s small unit found its niche catering to the needs of the poor living in the rural areas who had little or no access at all to sources of entertainment.

After the Second World War, the proprietorship passed to Narayanrao Walavalkar. The ambitious new owner began nurturing talent and enlarging his set up. The circus began performing in larger towns, drawing capacity crowds everywhere it went. Finally, Narayanrao gave the unit a befitting name to reflect upon its new found fame as a widely recognised first class entertainment unit — The Great Royal Circus Of India.

Glory days of the Great Royal Circus Of India

Over the next decade or so, tough competition from rival businesses prompted the Great Royal Circus Of India to start looking beyond its shores for greener pastures. The first stop in its first world tour in 1962 was the nearby port city of Aden. From there, the troupe moved to French Somaliland located at the Horn of Africa.

Despite performing to sell-out crowds in Djibouti, the circus had to keep up with its packed schedule and, after just a few days, moved to neighbouring Ethiopia. Once again, the circus was met with overwhelming response.

The troupe’s performances at Deredawa, Adis Ababa and Asmara impressed the Ethiopian ruler at that time so much so that he presented the circus with seven lion cubs.

During the hand over, Emperor Haile Selassie expressed hope that the cubs would one day grow up to be circus stars and bring fame to their birth nation.

After that, the circus proceeded to the Republic of Sudan where it stayed for five months before moving on to the United Arab Republic (Egypt). There, the circus performed at various major cities like Suz, Tanta, Cairo and Alexandria. It was also around that time that word began to spread across the region, telling of the amazing circus performers and their impending return to India.

Unwilling to let the opportunity slip through their fingers, other countries in the Middle East such as Beirut (Lebanon), Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Kuwait sent special invitations which the circus organisers were inclined to oblige. As expected, the Big Top was filled to capacity at these new venues, night after night without fail.

Towards the end of their stint in Kuwait and just when the performers thought that they could head back home for a well-earned respite, requests came from several prominent Iranians for the circus to perform in their country. Once again, the Great Royal Circus of India was forced to extend the duration of its first world tour. This time by a whopping 16 months!

Four years after its first world tour, the Great Royal Circus of India was once again lured away from home. Under the sponsorship of prominent community leader, Manubhai Patel, the troupe headed for the East African region in 1966 for its second world tour.

They performed in front of sell-out crowds in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania for an entire year before moving on to Mauritius and French Reunion Island around the middle of November 1967.

This side of the shore

The next page in the booklet yields great interest to me. The troupe made its long voyage across the Indian Ocean after leaving Reunion and headed for Southeast Asia. Their first port of call was Singapore where the performers put on daily shows for three months.

The performers left the Lion City in September 1968 and moved across the causeway into Malaysia. Although no details of the places visited were provided, I’m sure the Great Royal Circus Of India must have stopped by at major towns like Johor Baru, Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Penang prior to their arrival in Alor Star.

The remaining pages provide details of the individual performers who formed the backbone of the circus. The accompanying black and white photographs assist in reliving the exciting two hours my family and I spent at the Big Top nearly half a century ago.

The show began with the Grand Parade where all the artistes and their animal friends entered the ring accompanied by live orchestra music. I can still remember vividly the spectators erupting into applause and cheers each time the ring master introduced the individual performers. After that, the 15 act performance quickly got underway.

The seventh act, which was the Wonder Show Of Wild Animals, left the greatest impact on me by the time the show ended. The 20-minute segment featured experienced trainers Nishikant Walavalkar and Laxman Rao together with their performing large cats. Apart from ferocious lions and snarling tigers, I was particularly attracted to the rare liger which performed a number of tricks on a tricycle!

The liger, a carefully managed hybrid cross between a male lion and a female tiger, took the world by storm when its existence was first documented in India during the early 19th century. Typically larger than both its parent species, the liger was favoured by circus trainers for its highly sociable nature and superior intelligence.

A pleasant surprise awaits me when I reach the end of the booklet. Slipped in between the last page and back cover are a folded parchment and a black and white photograph of three lovely maidens. When unfolded, the paper turns out to be a large foolscap-sized circus promotional leaflet. I guess my parents must have saved the leaflet when it was left at our letter box as part of the circus’ advertising blitz.

Printed in the four major languages, the leaflet mentions that Malaysia was the 18th country visited by the circus. There were at total of 200 performing artistes and admission rates ranged from between $1 and $5. School children enjoyed half rate discounts.

Local flavour

Back then, the school where the circus took up temporary residence was known as Sekolah Kebangsaan Kanchut. A check with my Kedah history books reveal that the name change took place on Mar 1, 1985. The school was renamed in honour of Haji Wan Sulaiman bin Wan Sidek who was a prominent Islamic scholar in Kedah during the early part of the 20th century.

The photograph, on the other hand, remains a mystery until I show it to my mother. It doesn’t take long before her memory is jolted. “These are the famous Chang sisters — Lye Tee, Lye Mei and Lye Lye. The girls were famous songstresses in Malaya back in the 1960s, performing at pageants and trade fairs throughout the country. Lye Tee reached stardom when a popular hit she sang in Shaw Brothers’ 1964 musical The Lark became very popular,” my mother explains.

“Although the girls were not directly related to our local circus industry, their parents performed popular acts. Since I didn’t have any photographs of their parents, I simply included this to serve as a reminder,” she adds, after noticing my perplexed facial expression.

Long before the birth of their three daughters, the Chang couple left their war-torn homeland in China and sailed to Singapore. In 1941, they joined the local Shen Chang Fu Circus and quickly rose through the ranks to become famous performers.

Unlike the Great Royal Circus of India, Shen Chang Fu Circus chose to remain primarily in Malaya. The only place where it was known to perform abroad was in Hong Kong’s Lai Yuen Amusement Park. There, spectators were treated to captivating acts like dancing elephants, tigers jumping through flaming hoops, agile acrobats and death defying trapeze artistes.

Laughing out loud, my mother shares a story about a strange phenomenon that took place each time the circus visited Alor Star. “Stray cats and dogs disappeared from our streets each time the circus came by. There were also reports of people losing their pets. After some time, rumours began to spread saying that these missing animals ended up as dinner for the circus carnivores!”

The modern circus

By the 1970s, the Big Top began losing its appeal as there were more options for recreational activities and members of the public could afford the cheaper, mass produced television sets. Like most establishments of its kind around the world, the Great Royal Circus Of India halted its once lucrative world tours and the troupe eventually disbanded.

As I slowly return the items back to their place on the bookshelf, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the modern form of the circus today. Suffice to say, I’m heartened that some part of it has managed to evolve and continue to survive.

A good example is the establishment of the Cirque du Soleil in Canada in the 1980s which revolutionised the idea of a modern circus. Dispensing completely with performing animals, this show focused on aesthetic content and a character-driven narrative approach.

Fortunately, all is not lost as modern society can always turn to the movies for their dose of circus magic, just like I did with The Greatest Showman. How magical it was to find myself lost in the good old days when the circus reigned supreme.

There are 10 female acrobats involved in this act.
The rare Great Royal Circus of India promotional leaflet.
The Great Royal Circus Of India enjoyed capacity crowds during its heyday.
Several acrobats performing death defying acts.
An elephant preparing to enter the Big Top.