The circus won’t die
On World Circus Day, meet one of the last living founders of legendary circuses and the people around him
M.V. Shankaran with his pet elephant at his home in Kerala.
Photographs by Hemant Mishra/Mint
by Rahul Chandran
April 19, 2014
What would Rs.6,000 buy you these days? A meal for two at a posh restaurant? A nice tan courtesy a return ticket from Bangalore to Goa? You could, of course, opt for a down-payment on a two-wheeler.
It got M.V. Shankaran and his business partner K. Sahadevan one elephant, two lions and a tent, among other things, when they bought the Vijaya Circus in 1951. The 50-60 performers who chose to stay with the new owners were a bonus.
Trapeze artists preparing for a show at Gemini Circus
To say that 90-year-old Shankaran has had a colourful life would be an understatement. He trained on the horizontal bar and the trapeze at an academy when he was 13, joined the British war effort when he was 17 (he wanted to fight for his country, he says), joined Kolkata’s Boselion Circus as a trapeze artiste in 1948, and saved enough money to buy a failing circus in 1951, when he was 27.
At 5ft, 8 inches, Shankaran could easily pass off for someone two decades younger. Standing erect, if a trifle frail, he is happy to show off his two pet elephants, feeding them bananas. They are female Asian elephants whose names he can no longer recall.
Later, sitting on the porch of the 32-room Palmgrove Heritage Retreat in Kannur in Kerala—he is its chief executive officer—he talks about how his circus empire began, and the famous people who visited his circus. He no longer runs Gemini, the circus he founded almost 63 years ago, or Jumbo Circus, which he founded in 1977. His eldest son Ajay Shankar, 53, runs the circuses, while the younger son, Ashok, runs a business in New Delhi. Daughter Renu, 47, lives in Australia.
Cycling act at Gemini Circus
Ajay runs four circuses in all —Jumbo was broken up into two separate circuses when it got too unwieldy. He runs a hotel in Chennai and the Palmgrove resort in Kerala, among other things.