From Cambodia, a lesson for Indian circuses

By: | Published: April 9, 2017 1:41 AM

THE IDEA OF a circus being a source of employment might not appeal to many at first. But when you factor in the million of tourists that visit India and what circus means to them, then this idea starts to make sense.

For many tourists, the circus is one way of knowing more about a country through performing arts. While India has a big pool of artists, there is a dearth of opportunities.

THE IDEA OF a circus being a source of employment might not appeal to many at first. But when you factor in the million of tourists that visit India and what circus means to them, then this idea starts to make sense.

For many tourists, the circus is one way of knowing more about a country through performing arts. While India has a big pool of artists, there is a dearth of opportunities.

At a recent conference, stakeholders from the government, corporates and performing arts sector brainstormed to find a sustainable model for traditional performing artists across India. Augmenting Skill India—Conserving Cultural Skills and Strategising livelihood Models for Folk, Street, and Circus Artists was conducted in New Delhi by the Centre For New Perspectives (CNP) in collaboration with the Indian Council of Cultural Relations, Sangeet Natak Akademi and the National Skill Development Corporation. CNP has proposed that pilot projects be created by investing in developing strategies, creating models for mainstreaming these skills of traditional marginalised communities through changed performative models and capacity building programmes.

“There are already existing institutions like the circuses in India and corporates like the Serendipity Trust. These entities are committed to creating sustainability. The only way this skills sector can be rejuvenated is through creating a market for performing artists. We have so many young, skilled artists. All we need are employment opportunities,” says Navina Jafa, CEO and vice-president, Centre for New Perspectives.

A source of inspiration for comes from the Cambodian city of Siem Reap. Located on the outskirts of Siem Reap, Phare: The Cambodian Circus is a spectacle that is upstaged only by the centuries old Angkor Wat temple.

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Phare’s story becomes all the more interesting after one looks at its sustainable model of functioning. Their performers use theatre, music, dance and modern circus arts to tell uniquely Cambodian stories.

All artists at Phare are graduates from Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPSA), an NGO school and professional arts training center in Battambang. PPSA was founded in 1994 by nine young Cambodian men at a time when Cambodia was left devastated by war. Today, more than 1,200 students attend the school and 500 individuals attend the vocational arts training programmes.

In 2013, PPSA started the Phare Performing Social Enterprise (PPSE). The Phare circus, started in February 2013, comes under the umbrella of PPSE, which is supported by social investors.

Almost 75% of the circus profit goes to PPSA where programmes are offered for free. Phare has not only managed to revive a dying culture but also provided a sustainable platform for young performing artists.

“The local market in Cambodia is not big enough. We have lost the tradition of going to events based on performing arts, but it is slowly being revived. We have a community programme where we give free seats to locals who cannot afford the tickets. That is one reason why foreign tourists form such a big part of our target audience,” says Hout Dara, chief executive of the Phare circus. Hout says almost 4 million tourists visit Cambodia annually.

Some people from the sector in India believe Phare’s success could prove useful case study in India, where traditional performing artists, madaris and street magicians still exist. “There are so many gifted kids in India. Participating in performing art events such as a circus would give them the perfect employment. But it is not easy because of certain rules and policy regulations. Now, the cost of training the youngsters has also gone up,” says Sujit Philip of Bengaluru-based Rambo Circus.

The Phare circus is a simple tourism-focussed business. Ticket prices, says Hout, are fixed at $35, $25 and $18.

They also conducted relevant market research on tourists and tour operators to understand what ‘circus’ meant to them. “The Cambodian case is wonderful because it is an underdeveloped country. If they can do it, they why can’t we?” asks Jafa of CNP.

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