How circus training gives poor Indian children a voice

Practising and performing helps underprivileged children find their way and build confidence

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Every evening, a large concrete area outside a New Delhi church fills with children performing circus acts such as juggling, balancing on tightropes and globes, and riding unicycles.

A crowd gathers to watch as the children practise, with their shouts and laughter drowning out the constant honking of traffic on the adjacent road.

The children, aged between five and 18, go to the St Peter’s Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church near Connaught Place — the Indian capital's British-era business district — every day after school. Many are still in their uniforms.

But they are not circus performers; nor are they seeking a career in the dying industry.

They are learning to create an identity for themselves and speak up for their rights and those of other underprivileged children, under a programme organised by Pratyek, a Delhi charity.

Many of the children live in the slums of India's capital and have parents working in low-paid jobs.

“I enjoy it here because I learn wonderful things,” says Asmita, 8, whose mother is a domestic worker. "I learn to do rings, globe, juggling and cycling … I had never done all this before.

“I also study here. I go to school and I am learning English.”

Learning to be heard

Children from marginalised community train to twirl plastic hoops as they learn the art of balance taught and organised by a non-governmental organisation (NGO) - Pratyek to enable children to use performing art to highlight issues like child rights and climate change, in New Delhi on November 23, 2022.  (Photo by Sajjad HUSSAIN  /  AFP)

Children from underprivileged backgrounds are often deprived of basic rights in India.

They are forced to quit school and end up working as child labourers to supplement the family's income.

Some of them also end up using drugs or being involved in petty crime in the absence of parental guidance and social support.

Pratyek’s circus training programme is aimed at giving these children confidence and a chance to live with dignity in society.

Every evening, trainers from Pratyek help them to master their routines.

The children then perform at venues including street protests and corporate social responsibility events, and speak about child rights and issues such as sustainable development.

“I enjoy the attention when people clap and cheer for us,” says Sachin, a pupil in Grade 5. "They also take our pictures. It is exciting."

Pratyek started the programme 11 years ago with a focus on giving children a greater say.

Steve Rocha, its executive director, says it began with activities such as mime, mimicry and puppetry, but it was the exhilaration of performing circus tricks with props that got children hooked to the programme.

“We wanted to make it child-friendly to engage young people," Mr Rocha says. "Circus art is fun, they are performing for a crowd, with a prop that brings discipline in their mind.

“Circus Art becomes a confidence builder and also an occasion to draw them into a childhood space that also focuses on building their agency to speak and be heard in society.”

Opening new horizons

There are more than 120 children taking part in the programme in Delhi, and 20 in Mumbai.

Most of the trainers are former students of the programme, although once a year the children receive training from Andreas Ceska, a professional artist from Austria.

Besides the circus arts, the children also receive special classes in English, social sciences and general knowledge, and free meals.

Mr Rocha says the programme has helped to save some girls from becoming child brides.

“Some of the cousins of the girls were child brides but the circus art has prevented these girls from getting married, as we spoke to their families and got them involved in learning new skills,” he says.

Rajeev Jha, 18, who has become a trainer 10 years after joining the programme, says it helped him to break out of the cycle of poverty.

Mr Jha not only teaches circus performance but has also become fluent in English.

“My father is a sweeper at a hospital," he says. "If I was not here, it was planned that I would also join. But I had an option to break the cycle of doing the same job.

"My life has improved because I came here and learnt something new.”

The programme also widens the children's horizons.

“Some of the children are looking at becoming climate change scientists, entrepreneurs, dancers, businessmen, and even social workers or trainers here," Mr Rocha says.

"We believe that poverty deprives underprivileged children of dreaming but, with the support of the NGO, they are back to dreaming."

Updated: December 08, 2022, 10:13 AM