In the middle of a makeshift stage draped with heavy black curtains is a single wooden chair. An athletic young man appears from the side of the stage and slowly pushes himself up into a one-handed handstand on the chair. His movement is controlled, and he scissors his legs open, shut, open again in a single fluid motion. He follows this by hinging backwards at the waist, only his hands on the back of the chair supporting him.
Springing effortlessly to the floor he catches another identical chair tossed to him from offstage. He stacks it on top of the first, then repeats the act of balancing and scissoring his legs, this time from the higher, more precarious perch. He adds a third chair, and does it again. Then a fourth. As the height of the chairs increases, the rising tension in the audience is palpable, with people inching closer to the edge of their own (more stable) seats.
The poised young performer is 25-year-old Bijay Limbu, or “the handstand man”, as his circus colleagues call him, and his confident, friendly demeanour belies his dark history. Limbu was trafficked from Nepal to India at the age of eight to work in a circus. Today, he performs, choreographs and does marketing work for Circus Kathmandu, Nepal’s first – and only – contemporary circus.
Like Limbu, many of his Nepali co-stars were taken from their homes by circus agents when they were children, sometimes as young as five. Their parents were promised their children would be well taken care of in Indian circuses, educated and paid a decent wage. What transpired was often very different.
In India, Limbu performed acrobatics, trampoline acts and foot juggling. In the four years he was with the circus, he spent every day practising and performing. There was little time for rest and if he was injured, there was no proper medical attention. Limbu was rarely alone, however. Many other Nepali children worked in the circuses, and Limbu came to think of them as his family. He says the children ate and slept together, and looked out for each other.
Onstage, the chairs are removed and a single hoop on a chain descends from the ceiling. A woman clad in a red-and-black leotard hops on. She sits on the bottom curve of the ring, with her feet tucked casually beneath her, and within seconds, is hoisted up towards the ceiling. With an air of casual nonchalance, she spins a few times on her perch before swiftly, startlingly, falling backwards. Her outstretched legs thread through the ring, preventing her from plunging to the ground, and an aerial dance between woman and hoop begins.
Twenty-nine-year-old Saraswati Adhikari is one of the earliest members of Circus Kathmandu, which was formed in 2010 as a collaboration between British circus professionals working in Kathmandu, anti- trafficking agencies and Nepali performers. The circus began as play therapy sessions in shelters for the survivors of trafficking. Sky Neal, a British aerial arts performer, was inspired to begin these workshops after discovering that the talented young survivors were ashamed of their skills because of the stigma surrounding trafficking. She wanted to encourage them to see their skills as an asset, something they could continue to use even though they were no longer being forced to perform. Neal says, “It was horrifying to learn that something I loved so dearly – the world I was so enchanted by – could have such a dark side, and I wanted to do something.”
Adhikari is a very expressive woman, quick to giggle and give a playful nudge and a smile. But she has had a hard life. She dislikes the look of her strong legs, which she describes as manly, conditioned yet scarred by the trapeze. Adhikari was taken to India at the age of eight and spent 14 years there. She married the owner of the Indian circus where she worked as a young teenager and had three children with him, including twins. Like the other members of Circus Kathmandu, Adhikari was rescued from the circus in India by an NGO working to end trafficking. However, life is rarely black and white. After spending their childhoods in the circus, that was all the survivors knew. Back in Nepal, Adhikari and other rescued ex-performers no longer had an outlet for their skills. “All of these things I’d learned, now I couldn’t do,” she says.
This is where Circus Kathmandu has provided a lifeline. They enable these former performers to earn a living using their hard-won skills, and to do work they are proud of. The performers are paid a salary of NPR15,000 (S$186) per month – which is a decent wage in Nepal – plus bonuses for overtime. While they perform mainly for corporate clients in Kathmandu, they also put on a couple of public performances each month, usually held at Sports Hive Bar & Lounge in Jhamsikhel, a southern suburb in Kathmandu, where they also practise.
When asked for her favourite part of performing, Adhikari says she most enjoys the hula hoops. The bright grin she has during a performance says it all. With grace and adroitness, Adhikari spins the gold and purple rings around her waist, shimmies them up her torso, along her arms. She flings them from the crook of her big toe into the curtains at the edge of the stage. Another performer waiting there throws hoop after hoop over Adhikari’s head, like a game of human quoits. Although it looks as though every extra ring may be the last straw, the one to bring down the dizzying clatter of simultaneously gyrating hoops around her trunk, they never do. Adhikari’s control is total.
Apart from a regular income, Circus Kathmandu has also provided these performers with opportunities they wouldn’t have had otherwise. They’ve travelled to the UAE, Denmark, Norway and the UK to perform. Later in 2018, Adhikari and co-performer Sheetal Ghimire will travel to Australia to work with trafficking and social outreach organisations. Travel aside, Circus Kathmandu allows the performers a means of paying for their own and their children’s future. “I want a place of my own,” Adhikari says. “I also hope to send my children to Australia to study.”
Advocacy Drama For Social Change
As well as delivering breathtaking performances, an integral part of Circus Kathmandu’s work is educating audiences about human trafficking. About twice a month, they travel throughout Nepal to educate villagers on the illegal trade – and about what really happens when their children are taken to India.
Such education must be approached sensitively, not as a lecture. As Limbu puts it, “Usually, if we just talk to [villagers] with our voices, they don’t listen.” Instead, the performers act out their experiences through plays and use humour, in what they call “advocacy drama”. Nepalis are prone to laughing in the face of hardship, and this is an approach Circus Kathmandu takes with its outreach plays, to soften the often-gritty, uncomfortable message.
Adhikari and Ghimire are the two main subjects of Even When I Fall, a documentary directed by Neal and ethnographic filmmaker Kate McLarnon that’s being released worldwide in 2018. It follows the work of Circus Kathmandu over the last six years. Neal shares, “We didn’t want to create a documentary that focused only on the problems faced by poverty-stricken Nepalis or the horrors of victimhood, but instead to tell a story of resilience and transformation.”
Even When I Fall was designed to support Circus Kathmandu’s outreach work, which is funded in part by a grant from British charity Comic Relief. The circus will take the film around Nepal, screening it in conjunction with the plays and workshops. The filmmakers’ intention is to do more than just tell an incredible story, but to create and strengthen the circus’ platform for outreach and education, allowing it to become sustainable. An increased awareness of Circus Kathmandu could lead to greater revenue. In turn this translates to higher salaries, the ability to rent a dedicated practice and performance space in Thamel – Kathmandu’s tourist district – and an increase in their outreach work. Limbu has high hopes for the circus to become self-sufficient. He says, “I want Circus Kathmandu to become bigger, more popular in Nepal, to be supported [by the public].”
As the audience emerges from a heady Circus Kathmandu performance, the otherwise muggy May air of the Nepali capital is unusually refreshing. Kathmandu – brimming with the sublime and the desperate – is full of stories of despair, but many more of survival and hope. Watching a Circus Kathmandu show, one can’t help but be awed by these strong, resilient and proud performers, and to hope that their future is as dazzling as their sequinned leotards.
This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine.