14 September 1991

Ram Prakash Singh and his elephant, Shyama, of the Great Golden Circus. Photographed in Ahmedabad, western India.

Although its audiences have dwindled with the growth of television, the Indian circus has not lost its allure. TIM MCGIRK tells the tale of a young Indian girl who would stop at nothing to join a circus, while the remarkable photographs of MARY ELLEN MARK show how India has transformed a Western tradition into an exotic Eastern spectacle.

A hippopotamus and its trainer at the Great Rayman Circus. Photographed in Madras, on the east coast of India.

It was an afternoon performance, and the sun came through the holes in the ragged circus tent. From her cheap seat at the back, Ratna watched a woman acrobat, radiant in blue, fly upwards. The act was called the Skywalk - the "deeeath-deefying Skywalk!"

Ratna had never seen a circus, she says. She had been beaten as a young child. When she was six, she ran away. She caught the freight trains on the Deccan plain, putting nearly 300 miles between herself and her family. For two years she begged and slept where she could: on railway station floors, in fields and in temples.

One night, in Malegaon, 150 miles north of Bombay, she went to sleep in the doorway of a wine shop. The next morning, she remembers, a woman came out of the shop and instead of chasing her away, gave Ratna some rice and lentils. She took Ratna to the Great Royal Circus, where they ate guavas and peanuts.

Ratna watched every act with a kind of fierce solemnity. She remembers the aged muscleman who endured an elephant walking across his belly; the jugglers, and a skinny man calling himself the Human Fountain who drank gallons of water and several goldfish, then spewed it all up.

A child contortionist from the Great Raj Kamal Circus with her puppy. Photographed in Upleta, western India.

And there was the Skywalker, who walked upside-down through hoops of rope attached to the dome of the circus tent.

"I can do that," said Ratna.

"What?" asked her companion. Ratna was emaciated from hunger, barefoot and dirty, and she still bore a large scar by her eyebrow from where her mother had hit her in the face with an iron kettle.

"I can do it," said Ratna firmly. "I can Skywalk."

Child acrobats rehearsing at the Great Golden Circus. Photographed in Ahmedabad, western India.

Venkesh, a dwarf clown, on a donkey at the Great Jumbo Circus. Photographed in Mangalore, southern India.

The Great Royal is one of 17 big circuses left in India. Thirty years ago there were more than 50. The first was brought to India in 1880 by an Italian named Chirini. He bet £5,000 that nobody in the audience could duplicate his trick riding. A maharajah's horse trainer did. The Italian couldn't pay up, and the trainer inherited the circus.

The American photographer Mary Ellen Mark recently visited a dozen Indian circuses in two three-month trips: the Great Royal Circus, the Great Famous Circus, the Great Jumbo Circus, the Great Gemini Circus, the Great Golden Circus... Lured by a 20-year-old memory of a hippopotamus in a tutu, she photographed "a simpler, older way of life" that, she says, is coming to an end. "Modern India considers them old-fashioned and even an embarrassment. I feel very fortunate to have photographed this project now while some circuses remain."

The Great Royal used to perform in places like Sumatra and Beirut - and Addis Ababa, where the emperor, Haile Selassie, gave the Royal one of his pet lions. Hit by the rising cost of moving a caravan of five elephants, 20 lions, four tigers, 15 horses, seven chimpanzees, a mess of cockatoos and fluffy dogs, and 150 people, the circus no longer finds it profitable to travel overseas. It now stays within Maharashtra state, pitching its tent in villages where audiences have not grown too jaded by television.

The day after she had seen the circus, Ratna came back and got as far as the gatekeeper. He chased her away. Ratna returned and, with a beggar's patience, stayed outside the Great Royal's entrance for several days. Finally, the exasperated gatekeeper called Pratap Singh, the Royal's lion-tamer.

Pratap is a slight man, with the air of a patient schoolteacher. During his 25 years with the circus, he has trained everything, he says, from parrots to hippos. His technique is always the same. "It's like a dance. The animal has to learn your steps and movements." (Indian circuses, which often feature animals never seen in European circuses, treat their animals well. Arjun, the chimpanzee trainer, keeps several old animals on pension and he pampers his stars with fresh pineapple and an electric fan.)

Besides animals, Pratap also trains humans, and it was he who had copied the Skywalk trick from a video of the British Gerry Cottle Circus and taught it to Suman, the acrobat.

Pratap did not encourage Ratna. "This little beggar catches my arm and says, 'Uncle, please, I want to do death-defying' [in India, "uncle" can be a term of respect]. I asked her about her parents, and she said she was an orphan." Pratap explained that he could get into trouble with the police if he went around picking up stray children for the circus, and he shooed her away. Ratna worked out which tent Pratap lived in, and would sit on a nearby wall, shouting: "Uncle, uncle. Please!"

Tulsi and Basant, brothers who are dwarfs and perform as clowns at the Great Famous Circus. Photographed in Calcutta.

Mira and Shefali, dancers, and Pushpa, an acrobat, of the Great Famous Circus. The dancers are dressed for the Peacock Dance, a stylised courtship ritual that is regularly performed in Indian circuses. Photographed in Calcutta.

Arjun, who trains chimpanzees for the Great Royal Circus, with Mira. Photographed in Gujarat, western India.

Ratna was experienced enough in the ways of Indian bureaucracy to apply to the village headman, who was anxious to rid the place of a beggar. The headman agreed to take responsibility for the girl, and she became a ward of the Great Royal.

According to Pratap, Ratna was as untamed as some of his lions. "I tried waking her with a shake, and she bit me," said Pratap. "She was like a crazy person." Ratna was also too weak even to turn a cartwheel. There were sores all over her body. "The first thing we did was send Ratna to a hospital. They had to de-worm her," said Pratap.

Ratna moved in with Pratap, his wife, and their family of young acrobats and trick cycle riders. She learned to live with the curious faces always peering over the circus wall, and she learned to light incense to cover the stench of elephant manure, and how to sleep with the lions' roar. She made friends with Boneless and Plastic Lady, the two girl contortionists.

Pratap Singh, of the Great Royal Circus, and his lion Tex. Pratap Singh took in Ratna, a young girl who had run away from home, and trained her as an acrobat. Photographed at Junagadh, western India.

Ratna trained on a plank laid out on the floor of Pratap's tent, limbering up with yoga and doing press-ups to strengthen her arms. It wasn't long, though, before Ratna had an enemy, Suman the Skywalker. She, too, was a member of Pratap's "family", and they all slept in the same tent, crowded with props, a Hindu shrine, and toothbrushes neatly lined up on a blue trunk. "At first Suman was friendly with me," says Ratna. "She asked me if I wanted to learn her act, and I told her yes, that some day or another - definitely - I would learn it."

After much cajoling, Ratna persuaded Pratap to rig up a version of the Skywalk contraption inside their dormitory tent. A ladder was hung from the ceiling, parallel to the ground, so that Ratna could practise walking upside-down, gripping each rung with the tops of her feet, stiff as grappling hooks. Suman was furious.

Shavanass Begum and her three-year-old daughter, Parveen, of the Great Gemini Circus. Photographed in Perintalmanna, southern India.

Once Ratna had mastered the low ladder, she kept wanting to try it from a greater height. "I knocked her off one time - not from very high - just so she would know what it was like to fall," Pratap says. Still Ratna wanted to try it inside the circus tent, even though Pratap had warned her that if she plummeted from that height she would either die or become permanently injured. There was no safety net. "If anything happens during an act - if an arm or leg goes," says Pratap, "there isn't much we can do to survive except by begging."

The day came for Ratna's first performance. "She left her fear on the ground with me," recalls Pratap. "I was the one who was afraid." Then she did the Skywalk backwards - across the circus dome. Everyone knew that Suman was still the star performer, but somehow she had lost her fire. A few months later Suman married a milkman, and left the Great Royal Circus.

Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years', with text by Marianne Rdton, is published on 25 October by Little, Brown & Company/ Bullfinch at £30.