Cir­cus of Courage

Cir­cus Kath­mandu, a group of young Nepalis who were res­cued from hu­man traf­fick­ing, is wowing au­di­ences in Nepal and other coun­tries

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Meena Ahmed

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.

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