Art historians can be quite protective of the ‘Western canon’ and according to them it definitely doesn’t include the kind you fire a man out of. But there have always been those who see the beauty in populist activities. Associate Scholar at The Courtauld Institute of Art, Thomas Balfe, explains that although it ‘requires a stretch of the imagination for most’, folk art also encompasses ‘context-specific performances (morris-dancing, story-telling) and activities so ephemeral or routine –– traditional jam making, for example.’

Photographer Probal Rashid, who is fascinated by the long history of traditional circus in Bangladesh, would probably agree with Balfe and has spent months capturing this enduring way of life. Eight large circus troupes perform around the country and most troupe members followed their family into the profession hereditarily or have worked in the circus since childhood. One, ‘The Bulbul Circus’ from Bagura district of Bangladesh, allowed Rashid to follow daily life in the big top.

Bright stripes, sequined costumes and spectacular acts make the circus a perennial source of inspiration for artists, but that was not the only reason Rashid chose the subject. As he explains: ‘traditional circus troupes in Bangladesh were once the major entertainment attractions during the rural fairs or melas in this South Asian nation. With the advent of other forms of modern entertainment modes, such as television and movie theatres, as well as encroaching urbanization, the traditional circus troupes are facing an uphill struggle to survive. My aim is to explore how the changing times are affecting the lives of the performers.’

And he discovered more than he anticipated. ‘Behind the scenes there is a different universe, a world of people who live apart from society but offer entertainment daily, as artists. And though they provide this display, the inner life of circus people is a mystery. They survive in a world of increasing competition. The big audiences have gone but still they carry on. These nomad performers move monthly from place to place, they demolish their homes and travel to another territory. Still they focus on their performance, neither money or fame touches them. To them the circus is their world, they are performers on life’s stage.’…

To read this article in full, order you copy of Selvedge issue 59 here.

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