February 1991

Photographer Mark, with friend Raja.

In Mary Ellen Mark's file there is a picture of him as he looked in 1974. They were young then, their acquaintance short, but she never threw the photo out.

Last year, as she journeyed thousands of miles photographing India's traveling circuses (page 48), they met once more. Like her, he had reached the top of his profession, which in his case meant fresh fruit on demand and a fan in front of his cage. Like her he had not forgotten 1974. "He gazed at me for a long time," she says. "I think he recognized me." The adjoining picture proves that their relationship bloomed again.

If ever a romance kept fresh over time, it is Mark's with the Indian big top. She saw her first in Bombay in 1969, two days into her initial visit to the country. India's extremes enthralled her: "There was life and death on every corner." A hippo in a tutu brought Mark face-to-face with something else about India, "a charm, an irony, this sly humor." She knew she'd be back--with a camera.

But first she would spend two decades making a reputation as one of the era's foremost photojournalists. Mark has shot everything from Woody Allen to Zimbabwe, but is best known for images of the disaffected and the marginal, especially children. "A lot of my stories are very hard, very tough," she says. In time, an Indian circus story began to seem like a benign break.

So in 1989 she and her assistants traveled by train, plane, van and auto-rickshaw, eventually rendezvousing with 18 big tops in lush tropics and near-deserts, tiny villages and tumultuous cities. Chasing one elusive troupe, they braved election riots in Benares only to discover that the circus had skipped: Riots are bad for business.

The six months on the road were worth it. "Each circus was unique," Mark says. "The performers haven't been spoiled by the modernization that has affected other parts of India; they're not ashamed to be who they are." The circus women gave her access to their compounds, as closely kept as nunneries. On her last stop the head trainer of the Grand Royal Circus anointed her his adopted sister. The token of the god Ganesha he gave her never leaves her person.

She will carry it back to India soon. Next fall she plans to accompany her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell, to begin shooting a circus film with a script by novelist John Irving. It will feature circus performers as well as actors.

Unfortunately, Raja will not be there; he died last March. But if, as the Hindus believe, a chimp can be reincarnated as a man, in not too many years perhaps Raja will be a small child, watching a circus.

Kate Bonniwell

Sunita, Ratna, Pinky, Tanuja and Radma, of the Great Royal Circus. Photographed in Himmatnagar.

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

Things arrive on Mother India's shores. She embraces them and makes them her own. The Moguls conquered her and later the English, yet one can gaze at her architecture and see how they are now but part of her. The circus came too, brought by an Italian named Chirini in 1878. Mother India embraced: A century later 18 big tops busily crisscross the subcontinent. They speak the universal language of elephant and acrobat, but they speak in her accent. India turned Chirini's circus into one where vendors hawk not cotton candy but tea and chappatis, where acts are "items," clowns are "jokers" and tiny girl contortionists are younger than children in the stands. The circuses, whose nomadic life photographer Mary Ellen Mark shared for eight months while creating this portfolio, maybe living on borrowed time; but for now, at least, they embody what she calls "a poetry and a craziness that are still uncorrupted, and honest, and pure."

Two girls rehearsing their act for the Great Golden Circus. Photographed in Ahmedabad.

Venkesh and his donkey Lucky, of the Great Jumbo Circus. Photographed in Mangalore.

Here is how a child joins the circus: She is six. Her family lives in poverty in the northern state of Bihar. Or perhaps they live in Uttar Pradesh, where many penniless Nepalese settle. One day her father learns that a scout will be in the village. The scout was a woman who lived in the village once, but when her daughter became a trapeze artist, she joined the circus too, as a children's caretaker, or "in-charge." The girl's father asks: Do you want to spend the rest of your life in a rice paddy? Do you want to sell matches in the town square ? And he thinks to himself: Do you want to sell your body?

They visit the woman. She feels the girl's arms and legs. She asks the girl to touch her toes, to do a somersault. Then she offers 4,000 rupees if the girl will go to the circus for four years. It is enough money to feed the family for a year. The father accepts.

The trip to the circus takes many days. The food there is different. The noises are frightening, the braying and roaring and shouting. But the in-charge is like a mother. She tells the girl she will teach her to cook and sew, and help her keep a shrine to the family's gods. All the girls live together in a guarded compound, to protect their chastity, so that one day they may marry.

The girl is assigned a guru, a trainer who has taught hundreds of children like her and who was once a circus novice himself. He asks her to bend backward as far as she can. She says it hurts. He says she will have to bend much farther if she wants to be a "plastic lady."

A year later the girl is first in a tableau of petite contortionists, arranged like decorations on a multilayered wedding cake. She faces the audience. Then she bends over backward until her head touches her heels and then farther, until she is peering out, forward between her ankles. She then drops her hands slowly, lifts into a handstand. She stands up again, as all the little girls around her are also standing up.

Circus performers in India are not expected to smile when their act ends. But she can't help it. She smiles from ear to ear.

Mira, Shefali and Pushpa, of the Great Famous Circus. Photographed in Calcutta.

Brothers Tulsi and Basant, with pet puppy, of the Great Famous Circus. Photographed in Calcutta.

America, a conquering nation, likes directness and clearly defined roles. India, much conquered, more ancient and more complex, delights in blurred definitions and roles slyly switched. Such ambiguity can be sexual: In one Bengali circus, there is an androgynous dwarf who walks around the ring's perimeter flipping his breasts up and down. In America he would be exiled to a sideshow, but here he is one of the highest-paid stars. His popularity allows him to dictate terms: He recently refused to go on unless his employers provided him with a special, enriched diet.

Or the ambiguity can be played out with different species. All circuses dress animals up as human, but Indian circuses run it the other way around as well. The twin dwarfs from the Great Famous Circus are acrobats, but their most popular act is one in which they dress up in their chimpanzee costumes and do a comic routine with a third chimp--this one real. The joke, which would be lost on a Western audience, lies in the similarity between man and monkey. Another, more startling interspecies combination requires a chimp to saunter into the ring pushing a stroller--with a human four-year-old in it. Whose natural order is it, anyway?

On the program in most circuses is the Peacock Dance, featuring two humans dressed up as the regal birds, acting out a stylized courtship ritual. The dance, commonly taught to small children, is derived from a Hindu fable. Even in its dressed-up form, no Western circus would deem the act spectacular enough to showcase, but here it has resonance.

Most Indian circuses, eager to preserve the innocence of their female teenage charges, insist that the dance be performed by two women. A rare female-male matchup for the act several years ago resulted in a circus marriage.

Mewa Lal, dog trainer, with Pinky, Rani, Moti, Tinku and Blackie, of the Great Oriental Circus. Photographed in Kanpur.

Large-animal tamer and hippopotamus, of the Great Rayman Circus. Photographed in Madras.

Imagine. Center ring at an American circus. A chimpanzee lopes in. A priest follows. The chimp receives the Host. It would never happen. In Western tradition, man has a soul; an animal does not. God very early on gave man dominion over birds of the air, beasts of the field and every living thing that creeps upon the earth. Hindu doctrine, however, maintains that all living things, human or otherwise, come from God, are part of God and will return to God, making man and beast more or less equal. This perception allows at least one striking performance in which a female pachyderm, solemn and graceful as a Martha Graham dancer, performs a ritual in celebration of the god Ganesha, who is portrayed as having the upper torso of an elephant.

This egalitarian attitude toward animals influences--and enobles--their treatment under the big top. A 22-year-old lioness, toothless, semiparalyzed, blind in one eye and long past her years of stardom, is maintained on the same diet as her working relatives. Her trainer says, "She's living on her pension. "  It is not uncommon in times of hardship for dogs and lions to eat better than their trainers. The death of one of his chimpanzee charges recently sent the head trainer of the Royal Circus into a mourning as profound as if one of his own children had died.

And there is another consideration that ensures animal parity--their price tags. An elephant costs 100,000 rupees, a tiger costs 200,000 and a chimpanzee, if it can be had, costs 500,000 rupees. In contrast, their trainer makes about 60,000 rupees a year. The animals' names, too, are precious. One leonine trio is known as Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, for the Hindu gods who create, preserve and destroy. An elephant that can balance on one hind leg is named for the mythical Anarkali, a beautiful court dancer who was the king's lover.

Arjun, chimpanzee teacher, with Mira, his favorite pupil, of the Great Royal Circus. Photographed in Himmatnagar.

There are murmurs in India that the circus and its lively universe of men and animals, discipline and whimsy, may not survive a generation. Its nemesis is the television set. The big top's last great boom came in the early 1960s, before India was plugged into the global village, when the circus was still a small town's much-awaited window to the outside world.

But now almost every village can boast at least one television set. A day when a popular program is broadcast inevitably means a small take at the circus. Even the performers rush back to their tents between acts to watch a miniseries. Caught between decreasing revenues and rising overhead, nearly three dozen circuses have failed in the last three decades. Some suggest that the circus, which is already exempt in most of the country from a 30 percent entertainment tax, should be nationalized before it disappears.

Or it might imitate the American model in which the 1919 merger of Barnum & Bailey and Ringling Bros. later enabled them to enjoy a near monopoly.

Mary Ellen Mark has photographed Ringling Bros. It is, she says carefully, "a great circus. They have these huge mechanical props. It's a multimillion dollar show.

"But," she adds, "it's corporate. The decisions are corporate. And the Indian circus is from the heart."

The heart. That source may be picturesque, but it seems outmoded now, almost quaint. After all, the corporation is the ascendant organizational form of the 20th century. Not even Mother India, the great embracer, could take it, Indianize it, infuse this soulless entity with her 5,000-year-old soulfulness.

Or could she?

"India has a very strong culture," says Mary Ellen Mark, hopefully.