Sunday 11 December 2016

Performing acrobatics: the Nepali circus that is fighting the slave traders

Jason O'Brien in Kathmandu

Published 23/04/2016 | 02:30

A performer with Circus Kathmandu relaxes during a practise session. Photo: Mark Condren
A performer with Circus Kathmandu relaxes during a practise session. Photo: Mark Condren

She is suspended 15 feet above the ground, using only fabric to swing, suspend, spiral and wrap her body in and out of various positions. There is no safety net.

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Nearby, another young woman seemingly-effortlessly swings three glittering hoops around her hips, another around her knees, and, as she holds her arm aloft, another around her right wrist. She's perfectly in rhythm to the quick beat of the Nepali music.

On the other side of the warehouse, a human pyramid is being set up and one acrobat will perfect a handstand at the summit.

Like most troupes, it's a case of 'practise, practise, practise' for Circus Kathmandu.

But this is not like any other circus.

Although many of these performers have been involved in circuses since they were children, it is only recently that they had a choice over whether or not to practice, a choice over whether or not to perform, a choice over whether or not they could walk away.

A performer in Circus Kathmandu goes through a training routine. Photo: Mark Condren
A performer in Circus Kathmandu goes through a training routine. Photo: Mark Condren

For many years Bijay Limbu didn't have those options.

Read more: Nepal one year on: Why are billions still unspent and so little rebuilt?

A performer with Circus Kathmandu. Photo: Mark Condren
A performer with Circus Kathmandu. Photo: Mark Condren

It is 16 years since he was sent to India by his parents, and what they believed was a chance of a better life. He still grimaces at the thought of how they were duped.

Within months he had been sold by traffickers and was performing in a circus, pulling acrobatic tricks to entertain the children who predominantly made up the audience.

Aged eight, he was only a child himself. In reality, his childhood was over.

Like many trafficking victims, Bijay does not like to dwell on the past.

"In India, I had no choice. I was told what to do and when," he says simply.

"I couldn't leave. It was very difficult. I thought many times of trying to escape - but where?"

A performer in Circus Kathmandu goes through a training routine. Photo: Mark Condren
A performer in Circus Kathmandu goes through a training routine. Photo: Mark Condren

The majority of performers in Circus Kathmandu were trafficked to circuses in India, some aged just four.

Traditional circuses continue to be hugely popular there, and many owners prefer Nepalis due to their lighter skin colour and smaller build.

Not to mention the cheap labour.

Away from their families, unfamiliar with the local language, Nepali children are considered easier to control and exploit, and less likely to run away.

A typical day would start at dawn with hours of tough training, before at least three shows for the public, the final one late at night.

There are plenty of horror stories - children being whipped to make them perform, young girls performing in private to select groups of adult men, children being disfigured, and so on - but the performers who would eventually end up in Circus Kathmandu were among the fortunate ones. They were rescued.

"There have been a series of raids by police and NGOs on the circuses down the years, and scores of children were brought back to Nepal," Subash Gautam, programme manager with Circus Kathmandu, says.

"But, for some, reintegration with their families wasn't possible."

Read more: Special investigation: One year on, how ruthless child traffickers exploited Nepal's earthquake

The reasons for this are varied, and complicated - from extreme poverty to the stigma of being a circus performer. It meant many rescued children were raised in orphanages. They eventually needed jobs but they had little formal education.

It was into this space that Circus Kathmandu was born.

"We decided we wanted to be able to use our skills in a safe environment, with supportive people," Bijay, one of the original members, says. "We wanted to create something of our own. We wanted to enjoy it."

All those boxes have been ticked, judging by this productive training session.

The show itself lasts 60 minutes and incorporates some traditional circus acts, theatre, dance, and Nepali storytelling.

The artists perform a wide range of acts including acrobatics, hula hoop, juggling, silk dancing, and rope climbing. There are no animals.

It is at times hauntingly beautiful and exhilarating, and has received excellent reviews worldwide, including at Glastonbury Festival where it was staged two years ago.

"It is a contemporary circus, and a relatively new concept in Nepal so the challenge is to make it sustainable as a business," Subash says.

"It provides a salary for the troupe which means they are able to have a career and live independent lives.

"We perform but we have an important social goal too, which is making a profit so we can promote anti-child-trafficking measures."

And help to construct some sort of safety net.

For more information visit circuskathmandu.com

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