Moorkoth Vengakandy Shankaran, who straddled the Indian circus industry as a colossus for seven decades, died in Kannur on Monday. He turned 99 last June.
Shankaran was better known as Gemini Shankaran, after the circus banner he established in 1951. The life of Shankaran—a native of Thalassery, the cradle of Indian circus—is the history of the circus in the country and its ups and downs over the recent decades.
He was honoured by the Union government with a lifetime achievement award as a recognition for his wide-ranging contributions to circus in the country. He published a book about his circus adventures titled Malakkam Mariyunna Jeevitham (a life of somersaults).
Shankaran, who was born in 1924, got attracted to circus at an early age. While a student of Class 4, Shankaran happened to watch a local touring circus named Kittunni Circus in his native Kolassery village near Thalassery. Kittunni Circus had been a one-man show, but Shankaran developed a keen interest in the show after watching a trapeze performance. Besides, his region had noted circus trainer-cum-performer Keeleri Kunhikannan.
While a student of Class 7, Shankaran broached his intention to learn circus with father, who was a schoolteacher then. With the backing of his family, Shankaran, fifth of seven siblings, started learning martial arts and acrobatic tricks under the guidance of Keeleri Kunhikannan, who was credited with training scores of performers. He dropped out from school to learn martial arts and acrobatic performances.
In the meantime, Shankaran floated a provision store, which had to be closed down shortly. Later, he joined the military and worked as a wireless operator during World War II. He quit the uniformed force after four years of service. He returned to his native place in 1946 only to rekindle his passion for circus. After continuing his training with M K Raman, a disciple of Kunhikannan’s, he went to Kolkata to join a circus troupe. West Bengal had then several famous troupes. He emerged as a star performer in the horizontal bar and trapeze and became a sought-after star in the industry. As a stellar performer in the bar and trapeze, Shankar moved from one tent to another.
The turning point in his career as well as in Indian circus came in 1951, when Shankaran bought Vijaya Circus for Rs 6,000 and rebranded it as Gemini, after his astrological sign. The first show of Gemini Circus was at Bilimora in Gujarat on August 15, 1951.
In 1964, Gemini Circus became the first Indian troupe to attend the International Circus Festival in the USSR. They held shows in Moscow, Sochi and Yalta. Gemini Circus also became the backdrop of many Indian movies such as Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker.
With tents, a long battery of performers and wild animals, Gemini toured from one continent to another, enthralling the audiences and taking the glory of Indian circus to every nook and cranny of the world. As that period was the heyday of circus, Gemini even chartered flights to fly from one country to another. On many occasions, it even hired special trains for the movement of the circus. Political luminaries and world leaders stepped into the tents of Gemini everywhere. They included Jawaharlal Nehru, the Mountbattens, Martin Luther King, Dr S Radhakrishnan, Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai and V K Krishna Menon.
In 1977, at the peak of the glory of circus as well as his career, Shankarn established his second circus company, Jumbo Circus, which also emerged a game changer in the industry. Tents of Gemini and Jumbo ballooned up simultaneously in different states and cities As a circus king, Shankaran explored the immense potential of the human body in gymnastics. He was instrumental in hiring artists from various countries for his ventures.
After animal performances were banned in the industry, Shankaran arranged an asylum for the four-legged performers at a private estate in Wayanad. A few years ago, he retired from the helm of the circus, leaving the show to his sons Ajay Shankar and Ashok Shankar.
When the state government launched a circus academy at Thalassery a few years ago, Shankaran came forward to bear the expenses of the academy and encouraged children from circus families to get enrolled in the academy.