Ringed in the circus

As the government ponders a ban on all animals in circus, Nittya’s mahouts and ringmasters talk about how loved she is and say releasing her means certain death in the wild


mong the four elephants with Rambo Circus, Nittya, 22, is the naughtiest. She is also the youngest and,according to the nine mahouts who look after the elephant herd,takes up almost all of their time. The two ringmasters have to struggle to groom her for the performance and then use all their persuasive powers to get her to leave the elephant house for the performance tent.

However,once in the ring,Nittya is a different being. She even renders the ringmaster almost useless as she nonchalantly grabs hold of a cricket bat with her trunk and smashes every delivery —a volleyball bowled by a diminutive clown—over the boundary line (here the tent wall).

Her audience bowled over, she exits a couple of overs later, her bat raised in a salute and with an equally careless saunter. A certain Mahendra Singh Dhoni comes to the mind.

Even if that comparison is an exaggeration by her doting mahouts,they are sure of one thing: the proposal to ban all animals from circus,like done with wild animals earlier,makes no sense.

” can’t understand why people talk about sending them back to the forest. Will it be such an easy life? Itni seva,itna pyar,khana-peena… discipline se rakhte hain inko yahan. Jungle mein kya milega (We keep them with such care,love,good food and discipline. What will they get in the jungle)?” says Jalauddin Shaikh,34,one of the ringmasters.

One of India’s biggest circuses,Rambo has four elephants,six horses,12 dogs and five parrots. The Animal Welfare Board of India recently proposed to the Environment Ministry that all animals be banned from circuses following an investigation authorised by it on their living conditions. While wild animals like tigers and lions were banned from circuses more than a decade ago,others like elephants,horses,camels and dogs are still being used.

The report specifically talked about “physical and psychological abuse of elephants.

Rambo Circus owner Sujit Dilip opposes such a ban,saying,The motto of the organisations pressing for the ban, it seems, is to shut down the circuses.

He claims that after the government banned the use of tigers and lions in circuses,authorities packed off wild animals to zoos,where they died. “We at Rambo Circus had 14 lions and two tigers. The authorities took them away and lodged them in Tirupati Zoo. Ideally,they should have released them into the jungle. All of them died in a short span. If this is not cruelty,then I don’t know how it is defined.”

All the elephants at Rambo— including Nittya, Saraswati, Champa and Anaar, all female, share one shed. The mahouts agree that one reason Nittya is the most cheerful is that she gets to stay with her mother,the 49-year-old Anaar.

“Nittya was born to Anaar when she was with another circus. When Dilip babu bought Anaar in 1994,he also bought Nittya,” says Bachcha Miyan, who heads the team of mahouts.

Last week, Rambo Circus was in Hubli in Karnataka for a 20-day tour. “Due to a last-minute glitch,we couldn’t get a proper playground and had to set up tents in an abandoned black soil plot,” says Raju,the circus manager,trying to manage that day’s shows on ground left slippery by rain.

A usual day begins at 6 am for the elephants. “We offer them fodder and then one by one they are taken for their morning stroll. Each has to walk 500 to 600 metres. Then they are brought back and washed. During summers and winters we wash them everyday and in the rainy season on alternate days. They are then offered fodder and other supplementary food,and later allowed to rest,” says Bachcha Miyan.

At this time a veterinarian comes for a health inspection. “It’s the Environment and Forest Ministry’s order that a local vet should inspect the animals . Only after the vet declares them fit can they be taken to the ring,” says Dr Prasad Durappanavar, the veterinary officer, Hubli, as he records Nittya’s temperature.

By now it’s noon and time for the jumbos to be groomed for the first show at 1 pm. “At present we have three acts involving elephants, says Raju. “Anaar used to do a few numbers earlier. But due to her age, she goes in the ring only occasionally,” adds Shaikh.

“Nittya is adorned with shawls. When she enters the ring wielding a cricket bat,the kids scream “Haathi aaya re aaya (Elephant has come)” says Shaikh.

Bachcha Miyan says they start training the elephants by the age of 5-7,admitting they use the reward and punishment method. If the animal does good,she is fed sweets and patted. If she disobeys,she gets a light beating with a stick. In a few months,the animal becomes fluent with the acts,” he adds. Apart from batting,Nittya can perform puja of a Shivalingam.

After the act,she returns to her tent and is chained by one of her feet next to Anaar. They cuddle up,wrapping their trunks around each other. Anaar occasionally plants what appear like kisses on Nittya’s head.

“Nittya never lets her go away. They can’t speak but they manage to express their love for each other. Only animals can have such selfless love. We human can’t,can we?” says Bachcha Miyan. Anwar Miyan, another ringmaster, adds, “Since the day I joined,I see them together. If Anaar is taken away or passes away,it will be very difficult to handle Nittya.”

However,the breaks are short. Nittya has to return to the ring twice again,for the 4 pm and the 7 pm shows. By 8.30 pm,Nittya’s act in the last show is over.

Contrary to the picture that Rambo Circus owner and mahouts paint of Nittya’s day, animal rights activists say a life in the jungle is far better than such a confined and controlled existence.

“The way animals are trained is the height of cruelty. You can’t train an elephant without torturing her. The harassment goes on for months before the animals start to obey only to escape the sufferings,” says Ahmednagar-based Anil Kataria.