By Sweksha Karna / The Kathmandu PostCircus Kathmandu is looking to redefine — both circus and stories of struggles of trafficking survivors.
While eight boys are running back and forth, warming up for the cartwheels, five girls are stretching and preparing for splits. The other two girls are hanging 3 meters above the ground practicing aerial acrobatics while Flo Rida plays in the background.
Saturdays are unlike other days at Sports Hive — the gym is filled with laughter and chatter of children who visit every weekend to learn different circus acts. But even after two hours of grueling practice regime, the children show no signs of tiredness. When their instructors direct them to board the vans patiently waiting for them outside the gym, they are asking for a few more minutes before they can leave.
“See you next week, Didi,” they excitedly scream out of their van’s windows as they are whisked out of the gym premises.
But just a few years ago, these exercises weren’t the means to have fun for these children — it was a form of torture and abuse. Taken away from their families at an age when they could barely remember their parents’ names, they were sold to different circus troupes in India. They were trapped inside the boundaries of circuses, enslaved, relentlessly trained and beaten until they perfected their splits. They were finally rescued, but for them, rehabilitation has been a daily struggle.
“We felt very out of place when we came back. After spending so much time in the circus, you feel like that’s the only thing you know,” said Bijay Limbu, president of Circus Kathmandu, who was also rescued from one of the circus companies in 2004.
In his pursuit to fit into the new reality and, at the same time, utilize the skills he has learned all his life, Limbu established Circus Kathmandu in 2010 with his friends who were also rescued.
According to a report by the 2018 National Human Rights Commission on human trafficking, more than 2,800 children are sold across the border every year to work in the entertainment industry. Among them, the children who are enslaved by the circus troupes are sold to middlemen or human traffickers by their own parents, who are themselves crushed under poverty.
While making a living through their own circus troupe, Limbu and his group came to the realization that they aren’t the only ones who had gone through such circumstances.
“That’s when we came up with Sapana, an outreach program designed for human trafficking survivors to cope with their past and utilize their skills,” said Limbu.
Sapana, which translates to dreams and aspirations in Nepali, is an initiative by Circus Kathmandu to help rehabilitate children rescued from different circus companies. Currently, about 50 human trafficking survivors between 10 to 21 years of age are taught acrobatics, juggling, hula hoops, hand balancing, acrobalance, b-boying and other performance arts under this initiative.
Reintroducing the circus to children who were once sold to the circus may not seem the best solution for some, but Limbu said a lot of rescued children don’t want to discontinue the circus after getting back home. In fact, because they were sold by their own families, some children don’t want to go home at all, which is why they bring them to other shelters and introduce them to Circus Kathmandu.
“When you spend so much time doing something, you start liking it. It’s not a bad thing, a circus is an art. Some of my friends have even gone back to India to continue performing: it’s a matter of choice,” said Limbu.
Seventeen-year-old Raj who started attending the workshop in 2015 agrees with Limbu. “The instructors are very nice and helpful. We have a lot of fun in the workshop and we learn about discipline as well,” he said.
For children whose own families sold and sent them away, trust is a major issue. But because the instructors themselves have been through the same experiences of trafficking, they bond with the children pretty quickly. While the training sometimes might get a little tough, Limbu and his peers make sure that the kids are comfortable and enjoying.
For these children, the meaning of the circus has drastically changed from something traumatic, to something therapeutic.
“I was a little skeptical to be involved in a circus again, I didn’t know how to feel about it, or what to expect,” said 18-year-old Rohan, who is also taking lessons under the Sapana initiative. “But now I feel like this is the best thing that has ever happened to me. I’ve made new friends and I love learning new tricks with them. Acrobatics is my favorite because I’ve always been into gymnastics and I can do it the best in the group.”
It is not uncommon for the rescued children to have doubts at first, said Limbu. “When they first arrive, they are mostly quiet. Having to deal with trauma at an age as young as theirs, it’s understandable for them to shut down,” he said.
But the children are said to have shown a lot of improvement after attending just a couple of workshops and are much more interactive, expressive and open. By the end of the workshop, Circus Kathmandu also provides career opportunities to the participants in late teens if they’re interested.
In 2014, the group performed at the Glastonbury Music Festival in the U.K., where art groups from all over the world perform. “There were circus teams from all around the world, and they all performed exceptionally well. But what made us different was, we had a story. I told my team just go out smiling, and perform their hearts out, at the end of it, everyone watching were on their feet,” Limbu said.
After the group performed at the festival, they expected to receive some recognition and support from people back home but sadly, that was not the case because the 2016 earthquake had just hit, and the entire country was mourning. Even the film “Even When I Fall”, based on their story was released in 2017. While the film caught attention from foreign countries and found the organization donors, funding and formal partnerships, people in Nepal were largely unaware.
This may also be due to the fabric of Nepali society, where people struggle to accept circus as an art and a viable career option. The participants of the workshop and the members themselves confess that they are sometimes hesitant to reveal that they perform in the circus.
“People here think that the circus is just about dancing and cracking jokes. The audience here is very unappreciative. They call it ‘chatak ’ and pass comments like ‘even I could do that, what’s the big deal.’ It really demotivates us as artists,” said Limbu.
This has whittled Circus Kathmandu’s core group from thirteen people to only five. Although the circus troupe through Sapana initiative has helped about 500 children since 2010, in recent years, they are struggling to collect funds for the workshops.
Sapana initiative doesn’t just provide circus training, trafficking survivors are offered a variety of vocational training where they are taught sewing, cooking, time management — everything that can help them lead an independent life.
Their initiative is the main drive to perform, said Limbu. Once in every couple of months, they travel to those parts of the country where human trafficking rackets function heinously. They perform in those areas — tell their stories through their acts and try to spread awareness so that they can save potential victims of abuse and exploitation.
Despite discouraging social perception and lack of environment to showcase their talent, Circus Kathmandu has big plans for themselves. “We are aiming to redefine circus, fight against human trafficking and introduce ethical entertainment to Nepal,” Limbu said.Speech