CHENNAI: The black metal gate creaks open as Pratap Singh unlocks it. A pomeranian and a pug — Appu and Shanky — begin barking at the stranger. “Down,” he bellows in a deep voice, and they immediately stop. “These two are my life,” says Singh, a 77-year-old circus veteran who now trains animals. The dogs stare at us from inside their cage as we walk up the enamel-coloured staircase. “They are angry with me because I haven’t given them any attention since morning,” he laughs.
Born to circus performers, Singh had made up his mind to get into this field as well. “My father ran away from home at the age of 12 in 1928 to join the circus. He was part of a group of children trained by the Parasuram Lion Circus — some runaways while some were either children with mental disabilities or abandoned by their parents due to financial shortcomings. My mother was in the same group, and they fell in love,” he says. Watching his parents work, Singh was naturally attracted to pursue circus. Getting into the ring never scared him.
In the circus circuit
In 1953, at the age of 15, when Singh was living with his father’s friend in Mumbai to complete his education, he began taking up odd jobs at various circuses visiting the city. “I was never allowed inside the main cylindrical cage at the centre of the arena, except for one day. It was during the shooting of the movie Stri when director V Shantaram had called for 20 lions in the scene. When the time came, they mistook me for an adult and pushed me inside the cage to calm the pride down. I realised how gutsy I was only then,” he laughs. At the age of 17, he went on tour with the Great Royal Circus against his father’s wishes, “Life at the circus was rough. He had threatened to break my legs if I ever decided to join the circus. Things were tense between us after I left home,” he says.
Of ban and bonds
Singh travelled to over 25 countries throughout his career, picking up new tips and tricks from foreign artistes along the way. “An acrobat in Damascus taught me how to do aerial stunts in 1964. I learned tricks like the ‘upside down walk’ and unicycling from my travels to Russia and Eastern Europe” he shares. In 1970, he settled in Chennai.
He started with selling tickets at the circus. “We made a lot of money, but our circus owner used to pay us for only two shows a month regardless of the number of times we put up a show,” he says.
A curious youngster, Singh began finding ways to bond with the animals whose cages he was cleaning. “I used to give them a treat every time I met them till they started expecting one from me whenever they heard my voice,” he reminisces. He waited till they were comfortable enough to eat from his hand before moving on to teaching them tricks. “You can bring any animal, even one from the wild, and I will train it,” he says. “It’s always about developing that bond with the animal. I love all the ones I trained, they are like my children.”
There have been times when Singh was attacked by animals. But, he admits to being at fault every time because he made quick, sudden movements that might have startled the animals.
In 2002, he ended his career in the circus when the government banned the use of tigers, lions, bears and elephants for tricks. “They took away over 30 animals from us to the Vandalur zoo, where most died of starvation and others were probably killed for their claws and skin,” he claims. Singh did not have the motivation to continue after that.
Apart from being a source for entertainment, the circus was also popular for breeding animals. “I cannot say that they were treated well by all circus trainers, but I used to fight with the circus owner often, to feed the animals fresh and good quality meat,” he says. Singh’s method of training animals earned him the title of ‘Masterji’ in his inner circles.
A father of four, grandfather to six and great-grandfather to one, Singh made sure that his family members loved animals. “They didn’t have to be part of the circus for that,” he says. “I have taken my kids to work and shown them all the animals there. They weren’t very interested in a career with them but developed respect for them.” His wife, Sarita was a gymnast, trapeze artiste and a dog trainer. She has also worked with other animals in the circus. “We never used violence to train our animals. I knew trainers who used to beat the animals until they learned. Some elephant trainers used to bind the animals’ legs and stretch them out to instil fear. I’ve seen metal ropes dig into the flesh and draw blood. I blame it on the lack of interest to learn. Most trainers I know are egoistic and worry more about money than the animal. They don’t want to learn, neither do they want to share what they have learned,” he points out.
After moving away from the circus, he gradually moved to training animals outside the rink. After the ban, in 2005,he began taking up projects with movies that had animals in them. His first project was Kamal Hassan’s Virumandi. The owner of Gemini Circus put Singh in touch with the actor.
But there is a difference in training animals in a circus and for movies. In the circus, the animal would be bound by metal ropes while training, four pulling it backwards and two pulling it forward. When Pratap gave the command to move forward, the four ropes at the back were released and he would tug at the two ropes in front. After repeating this exercise, the animal would eventually connect the action to command and begin to respond without the ropes.
“Teaching cinema tricks to an animal is a little different. You must stay 10 feet away while giving commands in a scene, so you have to ensure that they follow. The elephant I trained for the Bollywood film Jodha Akbar was from the streets in Kutch. He was used by his mahout to beg. I started by calling his name from a 20-foot distance. Every time he turned, I gave him a treat. Then I used to ask the mahout to touch the animal with his stick in various places as I called out commands. When the elephant got used to it, he would respond to commands without being instigated,” he says, recounting his experience.
Singh has worked with famous directors like Ashutosh Gowariker, Mani Ratnam and Kamal Hassan. They like his work because the animal and the director are happy with the outcome of the scene. He has worked with tigers, lions, chimpanzees, elephants, hippopotamuses, bears and a variety of birds.
Whenever Singh is in between assignments, he loves to spend time with his dogs. He also loves feeding the birds and squirrels that come to his terrace. “These are small perks in life that recharge me completely. I prefer staying with animals than with humans. I feel like they understand me better and the emotion is more genuine,” he says.