Life under the big top

The Lucky Irani Circus is Pakistan’s best known travelling shows. Generations of Pakistanis have grown up being dazzled by the acrobats, fire throwers, clowns and other acts. For the artists, the circus is a life of travelling from town to town, learning new exciting tricks and entertaining crowds.

Among them are those who ran away from home to join the circus and others for whom the circus is their only home. Children born into multi-generational circus families enter the ring as early as four or five and spend a lifetime on the wheels. But away from the bright lights, life for these performers is tough, chaotic and often short. Injuries are common and accidents can be fatal. And ever present is the pressure to be the best.

Some love this whimsical world, but for most it is the only way to make a living. The ticket for a show costs Rs200 and the families of performers are paid Rs1,700 on show days. But the payment, the performers say, depends on the turn out.

Five-year-old Fizza, known as ‘Chocolate Baby’ is the youngest performer at the circus. She performs the thrilling Iron Jaw Act, in which she is suspended high in the air as she grabs on a metal bar with her teeth. “My heart stops beating when she goes up in the air,” her mother says.

Five-year-old Fizza, known as ‘Chocolate Baby’ is the youngest performer at the circus. She performs the thrilling Iron Jaw Act, in which she is suspended high in the air as she grabs on a metal bar with her teeth. “My heart stops beating when she goes up in the air,” her mother says.

 

Olya is a Ukrainian who first performed in Pakistan 18 years ago. Olya’s act is called ‘Majestic Aerial Dance’, in which she performs a dance, twirling with a special fabric while hanging midair. Years ago, she fell in love with a Pakistani man and learnt to speak Urdu.

Olya is a Ukrainian who first performed in Pakistan 18 years ago. Olya’s act is called ‘Majestic Aerial Dance’, in which she performs a dance, twirling with a special fabric while hanging midair. Years ago, she fell in love with a Pakistani man and learnt to speak Urdu.

 

Ukrainian circus acrobat dancer Olya hanging with cloth wrapped around her during her performance in Islamabad at the Lucky Irani Circus.

Ukrainian circus acrobat dancer Olya hanging with cloth wrapped around her during her performance in Islamabad at the Lucky Irani Circus.

 

Mehboob Ahmed, 22, puts paint on his face just before his act begins at the circus. He does multiple acts like riding a unicycle and flying with ropes. “Our life here is chaotic, fun, tough but rewarding. I do it to make a better living. Sometimes we stay in a place for a day; other times we camp for weeks. But its a life on the wheels.”

Mehboob Ahmed, 22, puts paint on his face just before his act begins at the circus. He does multiple acts like riding a unicycle and flying with ropes. “Our life here is chaotic, fun, tough but rewarding. I do it to make a better living. Sometimes we stay in a place for a day; other times we camp for weeks. But its a life on the wheels.”

 

Iftikhar is the circus clown. “We are a team of little people who make the audience laugh. There are limited options for us in the real world. I want to be married and have a family but then hardly any of us gets that.”

Iftikhar is the circus clown. “We are a team of little people who make the audience laugh. There are limited options for us in the real world. I want to be married and have a family but then hardly any of us gets that.”

 

Iqra, a 13-year-old gymnast stands in a tent with her mother, before her flying trapeze performance. Her first circus act was at the age of four. She says “When I first looked down from an eight metre high platform, I was scared but when I didn’t fall, I became fearless.”

Iqra, a 13-year-old gymnast stands in a tent with her mother, before her flying trapeze performance. Her first circus act was at the age of four. She says “When I first looked down from an eight metre high platform, I was scared but when I didn’t fall, I became fearless.”

 

A group of unicyclists enter the stage to perform at the Lucky Irani Circus.

A group of unicyclists enter the stage to perform at the Lucky Irani Circus.

 

Suleman, 16 is from Patoki. He became a circus artist at the age of four. “I blow fire from my mouth. One night, when I was 10, someone replaced the kerosene with petrol before my act and I burnt my arm."

Suleman, 16 is from Patoki. He became a circus artist at the age of four. “I blow fire from my mouth. One night, when I was 10, someone replaced the kerosene with petrol before my act and I burnt my arm.”

 

Mohammad Akhtar,30, stitches and repairs the circus costumes. "My life is this circus. I left home when I was 15 and joined the circus and now each person here is my family. It's a tough life and we have to fight changing weather but I got to see Pakistan."

Mohammad Akhtar,30, stitches and repairs the circus costumes. “My life is this circus. I left home when I was 15 and joined the circus and now each person here is my family. It’s a tough life and we have to fight changing weather but I got to see Pakistan.”

 

Ghulam Abbas is 2 ft 4 inch circus performer. Born in a family of average heights he settled for a circus life. "Life of a dwarf is to entertain by doing silly acts. We are defined by our oddity. Even when I am not dressed like a goofy character, people treat me like one."

Ghulam Abbas is 2 ft 4 inch circus performer. Born in a family of average heights he settled for a circus life. “Life of a dwarf is to entertain by doing silly acts. We are defined by our oddity. Even when I am not dressed like a goofy character, people treat me like one.”

 

Ghulam Abbas collects his costume as he gets ready for the group act of dwarfs.

Ghulam Abbas collects his costume as he gets ready for the group act of dwarfs.

 

Saadia mother of three kids stands outside her tent at the circus camp. "I use to be excellent knife thrower. Now I'm pregnant with my fourth child so I've stopped performing but my husband and children do it."

Saadia mother of three kids stands outside her tent at the circus camp. “I use to be excellent knife thrower. Now I’m pregnant with my fourth child so I’ve stopped performing but my husband and children do it.”

 

Seven-year-old Sana looks after her baby brother in their tent while their parents perform during the circus show.

Seven-year-old Sana looks after her baby brother in their tent while their parents perform during the circus show.

 

"Four dwarfs share one tent and i just look for any empty corner to get dressed." says Ghulam Abbas as he rushes for his act.

“Four dwarfs share one tent and i just look for any empty corner to get dressed.” says Ghulam Abbas as he rushes for his act.

 

Shahbaz adjusts his cap as looks into a mirror in his tent.

Shahbaz adjusts his cap as looks into a mirror in his tent.

 

Published in Dawn, August 16th, 2015.

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