Mary Ellen Mark Captures Indian Circus Life Of Yesteryear

Just cause you got the monkey off your back doesn’t mean the circus has left town. –  George Carlin

San Francisco Weekly once said wherever Mary Allen Mark goes, she captures both dignity and disintegration. There aren’t too many sentiments which capture the indelible photographer’s photo-documentation of Indian circuses through the ‘80s and ‘90s more gracefully.

It’s been over two decades since the book ‘Indian Circus’ was published and we’d be lying if we said we weren’t moved by it. Sure, as a billion-strong population, we traded up the big tops for small screens and cheap thrills eons ago but that doesn’t stop a sheer storm of wistful nostalgia from prickling the ends of our skin when we view snippets from our entertaining past. These days, the only glimpses we get are through a smattering of flyers promising Raju’s Great Circus in some lonely Bandra corner and largely, we resist as we should, in an effort not to encourage the known cruelty many of the labourers and animals tend to face. However, it’s heartening to see that there was a time that the circus was actually a preferred home to many. An escape from a more dreary future for young, bendy girls, and the bonds between animals and their owners were stronger than ever.

“I don’t think of what’s going to sell, and i’ve suffered from it,” Mark once said. “I’m still interested in humanity and people, even though the art world is not. They don’t seem to think that photos of people or humanistic pictures merit as art. But I disagree. And I’m certainly not going to change what I do.” It’s clear from her repertoire in the years that followed that this was an artist who truly never did.

So come one, come all. A three-ringed spectacle awaits.

Mary Ellen Mark fell in love with the Indian circus in 1969, during her first trip to India.

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As she watched a huge hippopotamus walk around the ring with its mouth wide open, wearing a pink tutu, she was struck by the beauty and innocence of the show.

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She returned to India many times, and in 1989 and 1990 she devoted six months to photographing eighteen circuses, following them around the continent by train, plane, van, and auto-rickshaw.

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Secretive, highly competitive, and each a closed, self-sufficient society, the circuses embody what Mark calls “a poetry and a craziness that are still uncorrupted, and honest, and pure”.

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Beautifully printed in tritone, this remarkable collection of photographs captures the texture of circus life outside of the ring – exhausting, humorous, poignant, and often bizarre – as well as the affection and devotion that the performers have for each other and their animals.

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Indian Circus is documentary photography at its finest. The photographs are not only compelling portraits of the performers, but also eloquent and poetic narratives about life in the Indian circus.

Ram Prakash Singh with His Elephant Shyama. Great Golden Circus, Ahmedabad, 1990

Mary Ellen Mark, “Arjun with His Chimpanzee Mira”, Great Royal Circus, Gujarat, 1989.

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