Under the Big Tent

The Sakura Circus is five years old.

Part-owner of the outfit, Dayan Preethilal Fernando has been a circus artiste since he was 16 years old, and says he joined just for the love of it.

Unlike in the past, when the circus would stay in a village or town for at least a month, it now performs only for two weeks.   As well, they are unable to have two shows like they did earlier, as they have to abide by noise pollution by-laws and end the show by 10 p.m.

The Sakura team comprises 18 staff, which includes those who help with maintenance and electrical matters.  The rest, including three women perform the many acts and tricks they have mastered.  As schooling is mandatory now, children must be at least 16 years to join the circus.  But, says Fernando, children don’t show much interest.   Most of them are not adept at climbing trees or even interested in playing outdoor games.  “They spend their time on Facebook”, he says.  He also finds interest in the circus amongst most schools is waning; “only a few schools bring the students to watch us perform”.

Not everyone who wants to join the circus is recruited.  They have to prove their mettle, and one of the owners, “Rani Akka” handles the selection process.  Prospective circus performers are checked for stamina, their ability to get on with the others on the team and the public.  They are asked to spend about a month and master one act, before a decision is made to recruit them.

The circus also has a couple of dogs performing tricks.  Here, they befriend abandoned or stray pups and first build their trust.  Not every dog is suitable. They choose dogs who display some character; ‘dogs whose fur stands on end when annoyed” are selected says Fernando, as they display toughness. They must also be intelligent.  Dogs are trained between 4 and 5 a.m. because they should not be distracted by any sounds etc.  Commands are given in English, as they are short sounds and dogs respond better to that.

Circus owners find the many permits they need to perform in a city extremely tiresome and prefer to go where all of that  would be attend to by their hosts; invitations by past students associations, sports associations or community groups etc.

When setting up at a venue, a coconut is fixed on to the main pole of the tent.  When the tent is taken down on the last day, the coconut milk extracted from the nut is boiled and sprinkled on the ground.   “It is a thanksgiving to the earth that hosted us” says Fernando.

All of the photos in this essay were taken in 2016, when they performed in Padukka.