Walking a tightrope
By Renu Warnasuriya and Priyanwada Ranawaka
Nimal Ratnayake and his family have travelled three miles on a push bicycle to come to the circus. "I have never seen a circus in my life. I wanted to bring my son and I think he is enjoying the show," says Nimal watching his little boy clap in delight.

Big, bright and bewitching, the tent looks rather out of place amidst the acres of greenery and the little thatched boutiques in the village of Banduragama. On the makeshift fence is a colourful board announcing the presence of ‘Circus Pasipriya", while the loudspeaker blares out, the times of the next show.

The travelling circus belongs to Ajith Damindasuriya from Ibbagamuwa whose childhood fascination with the big top saw him joining one when he was 10. " I saw a group performing in Bulathsinhala and I knew I had to join them," he says. At the time all he could do was juggle but after four years of extensive training he went from setting up tents to performing various circus acts. Today, he is the owner of one of the few remaining circus groups in Sri Lanka. Ajith's ‘Circus Pasipriya’ opened five years ago with around 30 members. “Though people join us during our travels only a few remain," says Ajith. Today he has only 12 members.

Once settled in an area, the circus runs for 20 to 25 days, depending on the crowds. "On weekends we have about 150 people but on weekdays there's not more than 70-80," says Ajith adding that they earn the most during Vesak and Poson."

The animals are trained by Ajith himself. His menagerie consists of Rexie the counting dog, Banda the dancing monkey, Raja the tightrope walking goat, and Chooti the balancing porcupine. Brownie the dog, a one-time star performer, is now unfortunately out of the show because of his over-enthusiasm."

He goes into the ring and does all his tricks at once, he doesn't wait for the music or anyone else,” smiles Ajith's wife Indika Priyadarshani. Priyadarshani handles the cooking and cleaning for the crew. Circus life, is nothing new to her for she had been involved in her father’s circus since the age of six. While Priyadarshani does her act, the other performers take turns babysitting her two-year-old daughter Chamodi. Both Ajith and Priyadarshani are determined to keep Chamodi out of their work."We want to educate her," says Ajith. For now, however, Chamodi seems quite content strutting around the colourful circus tent amidst all the action.

Rani, 35, mother of two teenage daughters is the only other woman in the troupe. Having lost her parents at a young age, Rani was brought up by her uncle and aunt who ran the Great Lanka Circus. Her talent is such that in 1987 she was selected for the foreign film Circus on the Moon. She and ten others were flown to Hungary for 1-½ months of shooting. Though they never got to see the final version of the film, Rani reminisces that they had a marvellous time abroad.

The youngest member of the crew, 18-year-old Upul Shantha Kumar, too joined a group that came to perform in his village. "My parents were against it, but now they are amazed at what I can do," he says.

Upul Dharshana, 22, who had no circus skills when he joined, is now part of the trapeze act and also does a number on the bars. Dharshana is the all-purpose performer. He and his partner Asanga add a comic element to the show, with their hilarious skit on social issues. "What people really like to see is the sword swallowing," grins Dharshana who can 'swallow' a 24-inch sword.

What is most striking about this troupe is their versatility, each doing at least two or three acts with ease. Resources are limited but they make do with what little they have. "We make our own costumes," says Rani looking spectacular in her shimmering blue outfit. The men see to the setting up and safety of the equipment and the tent. With lot of travelling they have to construct small shacks as living quarters. These are difficult to live in, particularly during the rains.

With their nomadic lifestyle comes other problems.Villagers are sometimes hostile to these unusual guests. "Sometimes people bring us food, but there are others who do not even let us take water from their wells," says Priyadarshani. On the brighter side, it is an ideal opportunity to see the country. "I have been in this field for over 30 years and have been to every district in the country," smiles Rani proudly.

As difficult as their lives are, none of the circus folk have any intention of giving up. "This is the only job we know, what else can we do?" says Priyadarshani. "Only a few people know what goes on in our personal lives. Just because we smile and joke, they think we are happy. But in reality, we shed a lot of tears to make them laugh," she says. It is a particularly challenging job for women, they add.

Ajith spends his free time looking around the nearby towns for their next location. Once a suitable location is spotted he has to approach the owners and get their permission to use it. "Sometimes we have to pay but some people let use the land for free."

Their major expense however is the entertainment tax paid to the Municipal council. "We pay up to 25% of our profit which is too much for us to bear," says Ajith explaining that their only income is through ticket sales. "There is no real profit but just enough money to set up for the next show. We just want to keep the art alive," says Ajith.

Heavy tax
" We charge an entertainment tax from any money-making forms of entertainment," says a municipal officer. The maximum charge for the Entertainment Tax is 25% of the ticket rate. This however, varies from council to council. When making the payment the owners have to produce the receipt from the ticket printers, as proof of the number of tickets printed.

Once a show is set up within the city limits, the council sends an officer to check if all the conditions have been met. The circus also has to pay a minimal amount to obtain a permit to perform for the public from the council.

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