A Mela is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘gathering’ or ‘to meet’ or a fair. In our part of the world Melas still remain a most popular form of entertainment. In rural traditions melas or village fairs were, and in some cases still are, of great importance.
They feature many and varied forms of entertainment including rides, merry-go-rounds, dances (mostly by transgenders) and other amusements along with typical food stalls selling Jalebis, Pakoras and Qatlammas.
Whatever else may a mela feature, if it’s worth its name, it’s star attraction will always be the Lucky Irani Circus. Going strong for about 47 years now, the Lucky Irani Circus, still continues to travel across Pakistan, spreading joy, smiles and wonder among all those who are willing a pay a paltry entry fee of Rs 200.
The logistics involved in traveling and setting up the circus site are staggering. The equipment and animals are transported in 40 trucks while a staff of about 400 travel with the circus. This includes performers and their families, riggers, electricians, cooks, technicians, guards and many others who are associated with the circus. Three massive electrical generators travel with the circus which generate and supply all the power the circus needs.
The Lucky Irani Circus was first established in 1969 by Mian Farzand and is now managed by Mian Amjad Farzand, his son. The circus show is a non-stop flurry of activity that lasts for more than two and a half hours. Usually there are three shows that start, on the dot, at 3.30, 6.30 and 9.30 pm with only a 15 minute break between shows. The tents of the performers form a semi-circle behind the big top.
This is where the performers live, many with their families, change and get ready for their performance. This is also their back stage from where they rush to the stage when they get their cue. Starting with the National Anthem, one wondrous act follows another in quick succession.
All the performances are complimented with an animated commentary and spontaneous live music. The stage is managed with great skill and there is never a lull in the proceedings and never a dull moment. The performers perform with a dispassionate passion and a stunning precision that never ceases to amaze!
The Lucky Irani Circus came to Khewra recently. The circus is a world of its own and my fascination with it, ever since I can remember, has bordered on the obsessive. Usually the circus management does not allow photography and cameras are taken away at the entrance. The owner and MD, Mian Amjad Farzand, was kind enough to give me the rare privilege to not just take photographs of the performances but also go back stage to visit the performers in their tents. This is the owner’s exclusive, large, luxurious and comfortable tent, complete with a large TV, a freezer and sound system.
The circus starts on the dot and each moment is accounted for. The National Anthem is played and the Pakistani flag is waved around by a young boy. This signals the start of the circus, which only stops for a couple of minutes when and if there is time for the Azaan. The show kicks off with the antics of a group of trapeze artists. They perform on swings and trapeze and are led by Mr M Iqbal, legendary strong man, master trainer and lion tamer, who has been with the circus for years.
Mr Iqbal leads his segments with a staunch stoicism that sometimes gives way to a broad smile, lighting up his face and giving the audience a glimpse of the gentle man behind the rather forbidding and strong exterior. Mr Iqbal has two sons and both wish for him to ‘retire’ from the circus. The elder is memorizing the Quran while he wishes for his younger son to become a world class body builder. It is a tough life, and while the performers bring smiles to the audience there are untold stories of tragedy and pathos behind the glitter and the lights.
Mr Iqbal remembers the time when his girl student’s hand slipped during the show. She fell down on the audience from a great height and succumbed to back injuries after 5 days. Mr Iqbal also recalls the time when his elder brother died at 5 pm but he carried the 6 pm show to the end before he could leave!
A segment from which people recoil in horror and disbelief but are also fascinated by features the snake eater. Mohammad Bashir wanted to become an actor but did not get the break he needed. His way to the limelight was riddled with snakes. He calls the snakes he eats, his children and takes good care of them, even putting them under his blanket to keep them warm.
He decided to become a snake eater when he saw how fascinated people were with this act. He cajoled a snake eater into becoming his trainer and taking him as a student. The first time his trainer told him to eat a live snake, Bashir vomited. The trainer hit him on the head with a bottle and blood gushed out. Bashir says that the sight of the blood made him crazy. He bit into the snake that was the cause of his ordeal and now he eats a snake in every show and downs it with a bottle of coke, just as a you and I would a piece of fried chicken!
Bashir has become immune to snake venom and gets his kicks by downing a glass of milk with a a few drops of snake venom, stirred…not shaken, every other day!
Bashir says his family and friends despise him for eating haraam snakes but he feels that he is much better than many and there are worse haraams in the world than eating snakes.