February 26, 2017 12:16:05 am
The history of Indian circus is dotted with stories of men and women performing enormous feats against innumerable troubles under the British colonial rule. Rising above cultural and gender stereotypes, they dazzled audiences in the subcontinent and all over the world. Their acts of strength, agility and conjuring, however, went beyond the circus tent. More often than not, they featured largely within the rhetoric of Indian nationalism and anti-colonial struggle where natives rose to prominence against the White other.
One such great was Kodi Ramamurthy Naidu, a highly successful circus manager and wrestler. Born in 1882 in Veeraghattam, in Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh, Ramamurthy exhibited a knack for physical education and gymnastic feats in his childhood. He lost his mother early and spent a great deal of his time outdoors. It was said that after he had a disagreement with his father regarding his career choices, he fled to a forest and stayed there for a week. He eventually returned with a tiger cub in tow. Ramamurthy’s strength and interest in body building piqued the interest of his uncle, a police inspector. He sent him to various fitness schools in Vizianagaram, and later, to Madras, where he mastered the different techniques of gymnastics and physical fitness for many years.
In 1911, Ramamurthy gave a demonstration of his physical strength in front of an audience that included public servants; later, he would start a circus company with a friend in Vizianagaram. He became a celebrity, particularly in Madras, for allowing motor cars to cross over his chest and let elephants rest their legs on his body. Ramamurthy would go on to impress both the then viceroy Lord Minto, who promoted him in Britain, and nationalist leader Madan Mohan Malaviya, who asked him to train tribal youths in physical fitness. Malviya is also said to have helped him to travel to London to showcase his strongman skills.
Soon, Ramamurthy began travelling extensively throughout the subcontinent. It was said that his portrait adorned of the walls of the Buckingham Palace after he dazzled members of the British royal family with his extraordinary feats of physical strength. Soon, Ramamurthy came to be known as “Kaliyuga Bheema”, the “Indian Eugene Sandow” and “Indian Hercules”. He became a regular in France, Germany and Spain.
Ramamurthy, like a lot of his contemporary circus greats such as Keeleri Kunhikannan from Kerala, Karlekar’s Grand Circus from Maharashtra, and Priyanath Bose’s Great Bengal Circus, is rightly remembered within regional and national histories as a man of ingenuity. Apart from training and inspiring youth to be physically fit — countering the colonial stereotype that the Indian man was weaker than the British — and instilling a sense of martial duty towards the nation, he is also said to have donated huge sums of money to different freedom fighters for the cause of Indian independence.
However, if we delve within his role as an impresario who arranged the touring of Indian performers in Europe, a peculiar picture emerges. Performers were increasingly stranded in Europe around 1910-15. Government records point towards Ramamurthy, the circus manager, as the one responsible. The exact conditions under which he abandoned his performers are shrouded in mystery. But, if one solely relies on government records, a grim picture emerges. Officials of the British Empire engaged in different ports of Europe exchanged heated letters to provide solutions for the performers’ return to India. The government papers centered around 1911-12, especially the correspondences of the judicial and political department, reveal accusations against Ramamurthy. One such letter, dated October 23, 1911, written by a consul general based in Marseilles goes:
“Sir, I have the honour to report that the following, who state that they are British Indians, viz: Panduth Biddu, of Lahore, Nanik of Lahore, Harkisha, of Lahore, Ralna of Madras, Dakari Lingh(sic) of Patna, are at present in distress at Marseille, and I request permission to send them to Bombay at the lowest possible cost. Their papers are in the possession of Ramamurthy, of Madras, who brought them to Europe as a performing troupe. They travelled in England and on the continent, and were left at Marseille by Ramamurthy, on September 23rd last. He paid their board and lodging in Marseille for a month, and left for Colombo, promising to send them money, which he has not done. They are now destitute, and on my hands”.
The Indian performers, who were abandoned in different parts of Europe, were first sent to England and from there, the India Office started the process of sending them back home. They were housed in the Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, a temporary settlement for repatriation of sailors and persons to be deported. Started by English missionaries with a generous grant of £500 by Maharaja Duleep Singh in 1857, this house featured prominently in the lives of the Indian performers who were lost (and found) in Britain and other parts of Europe.
While they stayed on foreign soil, these men and women were under surveillance. The confines of Strangers’ Home made sure that they were contained within four walls where they could be monitored before sending them off to their natural geographies. By the 1900s, the peril of immigration and the scale of surveillance on non-white peoples had already been increased in Europe and America.
A complex, bureaucratic arrangement was needed to send these performers home and the Empire, although late, ultimately sent her subjects home. Government Records at the British Library, London states that the cost was borne “out of the special fund which was granted to this Consulate, at the outbreak of the War, for the relief of distressed British subjects”. When these performers were abandoned, they were still British-Indian citizens, and, technically, could live in any part of the Empire. However, their presence was perceived as a racial and visual threat to the pristine cities of Europe, where large numbers of Asians and Africans could be tolerated only from the comfort of theatre seats, circus galleries and music halls.
A reader of circus history can be tricked into a mesmerising world of great heroes and heroines, battling tigers and travelling the world. However, the world of the circus was a space of empowerment as well as one of ambiguity — performers were constantly duped by their handlers, cheated out of their profit and abandoned in places far away from home. Historical sources are silent on why Ramamurthy abandoned some of his performers, but these infractions did not affect his future ventures. The Asia and Africa collections at the British Library mention that he was fined heavily but was allowed to continue as a circus entrepreneur. Soon, with the outbreak of World War I, the focus shifted and, over time, the concerns were forgotten. The British administration in India looked more closely at European ventures like the German Hagenbeck Animal trading company which had outposts in several parts of India, Sri Lanka and various critical locations along the port of the British Empire for espionage possibilities.
Anirban Ghosh is a research fellow at the School of Cultural Texts and Records, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.