Circus of Courage
Circus Kathmandu, a group of young Nepalis who were rescued from human trafficking, is wowing audiences in Nepal and other countries
A group of young Nepalis who were rescued from human trafficking is wowing audiences in
Nepal and other countries
Laxmi was only 14 when she was sold into prostitution. She never went to school because her family could not afford it. She was kidnapped one day when she was herding her cattle. Her abductors took her to a person – a manager – and she was informed that she had been sold. She was forced to entertain a room full of clients. Laxmi was not the only girl to face such hardship. This is the story of thousands of women in Nepal, where human trafficking is very common.
A report on human trafficking in Nepal stated that around 12,000 to 15,000 girls are sent each year from Nepal to India where they are sold to brothels and forced to become prostitutes. Their average age is 15 years. UNICEF reports that around 7,000 women and girls are sent out of Nepal in this way every year.
In 2010, Sky Neal, an artist working for an Indian circus for 20 years and a filmmaker, went to Nepal on a rescue mission. During her trip, she heard of several Nepalis trapped in a small circus in Assam. Neal went there with a camera to document the trip for an NGO. On her return to Nepal, one of the trapped girls, Saraswoti, who
is now a leading circus performer, inquired, "What will I do? All I know is circus?" Saraswoti had spent 13 years of her life performing in a circus.
Five months later, Neal returned to Nepal with her colleague and a close friend Robyn Simpson and five other circus professionals, including a social circus specialist. They worked with a group of 25 street children and young adults using play therapy and social circus techniques. Neal planned to volunteer for three months and carried out play therapy workshops to teach circus skills.
That’s how Circus Kathmandu was launched in January 2011, following an extraordinary month of social circus, play therapy and show creation workshops with a team of world class performers and trainers. Meeting international circus artists for the first time, the people who worked for Circus Kathmandu regained their confidence in themselves and this form of art. At this moment, Circus Kathmandu is a 13-strong team of committed and talented circus artistes who are also activists working against human trafficking.
These talented people were rescued from human trafficking and other vulnerable situations, especially from Indian circuses where they were sold as children. Although they were rescued from human trafficking, they did not go back to their homes due to financial constraints. Instead, they started living in a shelter, where the first play-workshop was conducted.
“Their skills, the way they learned and the joy they showed in performing made us wonder if there was something we could do to provide career choices for these young people. With some top quality training and around 50 volunteers, they have become international performers, have turned their lives around and are now helping other young people to do the same through our innovative anti-trafficking program. They have created Nepal's first and only contemporary circus to help show Nepal to the world,” says Robyn M Simpson, Creative Director, Choreographer and a Co-Founder (along with Sky Neal) of Circus Kathmandu.
These Nepali artists collaborate with international circus and performing arts professionals to combine the traditional Nepali art of story-telling with innovative circus and theatre techniques. “The ones who wanted to keep learning and exploring their creativity quickly regained their self-esteem. It was obvious that they had a lot of potential,” says Simpson.
Circus Kathmandu’s high-quality performances are perfect for raising awareness of important issues such as human rights. Their outreach program
The Nepali artists of Circus Kathmandu collaborate with international circus and performing arts professionals to combine the traditional Nepali art of story-telling with innovative circus and theatre techniques.
is more overtly anti-trafficking because their performers have experienced it firsthand. The group conducts workshops, vocational training, community outreach, social circus and human rights projects to create awareness of modern day slavery among their audience and inform them about the local anti-trafficking infrastructure. This is indeed a unique way to engage families and communities in a worthy cause.
“The current show 'Swagatam' has been created through a year long process in which these young people explored aspects of their past, making it a part of their present and future. The performers and the performances are inspiring and we hope they give other young people the courage and hope to create their own pathways, as the group has the passion and strength to do it. And they are members of what is becoming a successful social enterprise now,” says Simpson.
The group has been able to perform its functions because of generous funding from the international circus community. It has received the support of Philip Holmes (initially the Esther Benjamin Trust), Freedom Matters, Tris Forster and also incubation grants from McKinsey Consulting and The Backstage Trust. This year, Circus Kathmandu is hopeful about raising funds from the Nepali business community and the government.
The young Nepalis working for the circus are also given the opportunity to work as international performers and community outreach workers in rural Nepal. The latter is a difficult task as circus is still perceived as low-level entertainment in rural areas. But the team is hopeful. “There's still stigma attached to being a circus performer in rural areas, but we're trying to change the perception. All over the world, high-quality circus is incorporated into different means of communication. There's no reason the industry can't thrive in Nepal! Instead it can create lots of jobs,” remarks Simpson.
Recently, Circus Kathmandu attended a fundraising evening at the UK’s House of Lords which was well attended by several Nepali businessmen. The business community is extremely proud of what Circus Kathmandu is doing and how it is representing Nepal. Circus Kathmandu received standing ovations after their shows in Dubai and Glastonbury, making it the fourth complete standing ovation in the history of Glastonbury.
The group hopes to perform in the Middle East and Asia in the future. It also plans to do more tours and shows across Nepal. “We want to make Circus Kathmandu sustainable – we need to keep the momentum up and hopefully, one day, we can start a school for this performing industry,” declares Simpson.
The writer contributes articles on society and culture and has worked on special projects with the UNDP.