"Once voted Most Influential Woman Photographer of All Time by the readers of American Photo, she has spent four decades exposing dark, painful truths about the American nightmare..."
Although she might have captured the broken American dream better than most, here on the Illuminated Showman we will be exploring her travels to India and her passion for their circuses. Something which culminated in the 1993 photographic master piece Indian Circus.
I first came across a copy of the book during the Australian Circus Festival in Lonestar, Tasmania in 2002. The late Great Dr Reg Bolton had a habit of buying circus books whenever he saw them even if he already owned a copy. Then during gatherings of the circus community he would put them down on a table somewhere as a library/bookstore. I bought ninety percent of the books he brought that year. Anyway, I was struck, as most who see it are, by the haunting and rich images. Artists so similar to myself yet so different. Same planet, different worlds.
As much as possible, the text is direct quotes from the photographer herself. Enjoy.
"I love India and I love the circus so photographing eighteen circuses all around India was an incredible experience. Unfortunately, Shyama (the elephant) died a few months after this photograph was taken. Supposedly he succumbed to a poisoned chapatti. Ram Prakash Singh was heartbroken. Me also.”
|Image by Tim Mantoani from Behind Photographs|
(The excerpts below is from the book if not otherwise stated. You can read the full text here.)
"For me the Indian circuses were reminiscent of a purity of days gone by, an innocence impossible to find in Western cultures."
|R.N Thorat, Clown. The Great Rayman Circus, Madras, 1989.|
"The hippo is a very pure soul. He has his bath three times a day."
"I fell in love with the Indian circus at the same time that I fell in love with India. It was 1969, my first trip there. I was in Bombay with a friend and we went to see a circus at Church Gate. I was immediately struck by the beauty and innocence of the show. I vividly remember seeing a huge hippo in a pink tutu being coached to walk around the ring with his mouth open. At the end, he (or she) was rewarded with an enormous cotton-candy cone that matched the tutu."
"I always knew that one day I must return to India and devote a long period of time to photographing the circuses there. Finally, in 1989, I was able to fulfill this dream."
"The organization of the project was extremely difficult. Dayanita researched and arranged the entire undertaking. This was very complex, because there are approximately twenty-five big top circuses and many smaller ones, which tour constantly. They might stay in a location from as short a time as two weeks to as long as two months."
"The circuses are very competitive with each other and therefore secretive about their next site. They are also excessively protective, fearing other circuses will steal their performers and, even more importantly, their "items," or acts. Because of this they would often not tell us where they were going until the very last minute. The locations are carefully researched by their proprietors for many qualities, such as their accessibility, the population of the area, the length of time since another circus has visited the town, and how near to the possible location another circus is presently performing. One circus owner was so paranoid that he refused to let us know his location. It was a Bengal circus, and as they have a very special atmosphere, I was absolutely determined to find it. When we finally tracked down the circus several miles outside Benares, all we found was a big empty hole where the big top had been. We were one day too late."
"The circus is an oasis within a country in turmoil; the circus is a cloister within a world of chaos. If some of these dwarfs appear grotesque to us, it is important to realize that within the circus family they are not grotesque, because they are at home.
The Indian circuses reflect an atavistic and compassionate life, which Mary Ellen has depicted with disturbing honesty and compelling affection. Who are most of the acrobats? They are children, mostly girls; for many of them, the alternative to this life would have been begging (or starving) or prostitution. And what is the circus life for them? It is three performances a day, every day. To bed about midnight, up about six. Yet there is only one photograph of an actual performance in this book, for the real life here is not seen in performing; rather it is seen in the daily life in the troupe tents and in the dusty aisles between the tents--it is best seen as a life of practice, and rest, and more practice."
John Irving, from the foreword to the book.
"Photographing the Indian circus was one of the most beautiful, joyous, and special times of my career. I was allowed to document a magic fantasy that was, at the same time, all so real. It was full of ironies, often humorous and sometimes sad, beautiful and ugly, loving and at times cruel, but always human. The Indian circus is a metaphor for everything that has always fascinated me visually."