Beyond The Frame: Nepali Circus Workers

Image Copyright © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

Samantha Appleton's work on the Nepali circus girls which I featured on TTP a few days ago (link) reminded me of my unannounced visit to an Indian circus in Chhattisgarh during a solo photo expedition.

I recall that my fixer Babu had a difficult time persuading the circus manager to allow me in and photograph. He didn't mind me spending as much time as I needed to photograph the clowns putting their makeup, or the mangy lions (covered with tumeric powder to heal their sores), or any of the stagehands...but he was adamant that I could not photograph the Nepali acrobat girls unless he was present. He claimed -with a straight face- that it was to ensure that I didn't ask them to pose in ways that would "embarass" them.

I photographed the young women with the manager hovering nearby, muttering directions as to how they ought to stand and telling Babu that the shoot was taking too long. The Nepali young women were uncomfortable despite their nervous giggling, and my entreaties that they ought to relax. Realizing that the shoot was pretty much useless, I stopped and moved to another area of the circus. Babu told me that the manager had used crude language when instructing the women and that they feared him. I could not then, nor do I now, judge whether that particular manager was physically abusive...but what I sensed was these women were frightened of him. Interestingly, the acrobat in the middle made sure that the cross around her neck was visible when I started to photograph them.

What I didn't know then was that traffickers, both Indian and Nepalese, who are in constant touch with Indian circus management, have a thriving business of procuring girls from in and around certain specific Nepali regions by convincing the parents and the families to send their young daughters to circus industry by making false promises and distorted claims of fortune, and especially by bribing them. These children are brought under a contract for 3-10 years and once signed they became bound. Their meagre salaries are collected by parents and they remain trapped forever and are unable to leave the circus even if they want.

A number of NGOs are fighting this sad problem, and some have succeeded in rescuing many Nepalis from these circuses. One of these NGOs and charities is the Esther Benjamins Trust whose worthwhile work is detailed on its website.

Esther Benjamins Trust

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