A spectator’s reach from the gallery of a circus tent into its colourful and complex world of amusement and action is simply thin and tiny like an ant’s eye view. Given the most common experience of the viewer to connect with the excitement of circus remains within a narrow line of sight, Jumbos Jumping Devils offers a 360 degree snapshot of both close and wide angles into the world of circus in India; a relatively untouched domain within mainstream social science endeavours. The book opens in Thalassery, a small town and a circus hub in South India, and its onward journey progresses into wide ranging regions of topical relevance, going all the way up to transnational sites of inquiry.
Thalassery’s history and memory uphold the celebrated images of the ‘three Cs’—Cricket, Cake and Circus as the small town proudly claims itself as their point of origin, deeply rooted in its colonial past. Indian circus had its beginnings in this small town and it continued to be a circus hub, where hundreds of men and women had been joining the circuses and showcasing their competence—as artistes, ring boys, trainers, technicians and entrepreneurs. As the author notes, circus in the subcontinent is deeply enmeshed with the emergence of the ‘modern’. This is observed especially in relation to its reconfiguring effects on caste and gender hierarchies, the transformation of physical cultures, bodies and performances and the interventions of the colonial and postcolonial states on the lives of humans and animals as well as natural resources at different historic junctures. The embryonic trans-regional and transnational spaces and the advance of various technologies had enhanced the expansion of small town circus cultures. According to a 1968 think-piece cited in the book, there are 48 circus companies owned by Keralites and approximately 95 per cent acrobats from the subcontinent are Malayalis.
While tracing a relatively untold history of the circus lives from below, the author makes a careful attempt to realign certain methodological conventions and disciplinary practices. By traversing conventional historiography and in showing no inclination to establish ‘centres’, ‘fathers’, ‘origins’ and ‘originators’ in a linear and sequential order of affairs, the book explores some key moments and facets in various sites of circus in this part of the world, spanning over 150 years. The author’s intent to place circus in a broader framework of history, addressing certain pertinent questions on the domains of physical cultures, animal life, and technologies, provides the work its interdisciplinary flavour both in its subject matter and method. The aforementioned key moments marked in this work revolve around instances like the establishment of circus kalaris, state interventions in the form of banning the performance of wild animals and children, and the stealthy emergence of a labour union in the closing decades of the twentieth century.