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A CIRCUS SLAVE TURNS ADVERSITY INTO ART

Text: Ankita Jain

It all started with a promise. Saraswati remembers the day a neighbour from her village approached her offering to feed and school her. “I had four sisters and two brothers. We lived in Hetauda, and it wasn’t easy to go to school,” explains Saraswati Adhikari, who was aged eight at the time. “Some girls in my village were getting married before they’d even had their first period, so when this neighbour said he would take care of me, I didn’t even go home to tell my parents.”

The man smuggled Saraswati and his own daughter across the border, sold them both to the travelling circus industry near the border and left.

She was forced to train and perform in a travelling circus. “I was young and life under the tent enchanted me. I was eager to learn stunts and performed with diligence. Gradually, the determination started vanishing. It was all a forced act and I was merely a puppet,” Saraswati recalls.

She was only 14 when she gave birth to twins. When she was 17, she gave birth to her third child. And by 20, she was a widow. Her husband, who was almost double her age, was the son of the circus owner. “I was married and having kids and performing stunts at a time when I just wanted to play around with other children at the circus,” she shares.

After being rescued in 2010, she was reunited with her family after 14 years, and given a new chance at life. She successfully sought justice against the neighbour who sold her into slavery and who is now serving a 10-year prison sentence.

Saraswati who specialises in hula-hoop, unicycle and aerial stunts, didn’t give up on her talent. She could have taken up something else but chose to continue what she has learnt over the years. “I don’t want people to see us as victims but as role models by focusing on our strengths,” she smiles. Within few months of returning, Saraswati joined Circus Kathmandu along with 13 members who have all been rescued from trafficking and the streets.

She was only 14 when she gave birth to twins. When she was 17, she gave birth to her third child. And by 20, she was a widow.

Circus Kathmandu was formed in 2010 as a collaboration between British circus professionals working in Kathmandu, anti- trafficking agencies and Nepali performers. The circus began as play therapy sessions in shelters for survivors of trafficking. Sky Neal, a British aerial arts performer, was inspired to begin these workshops after discovering that the talented young survivors were ashamed of their skills because of the stigma surrounding trafficking. Sky wanted to encourage them to see their skills as an asset, something they could continue to use even though they were no longer being forced to perform. Circus Kathmandu is the first project of its kind in the world, helping support a group to move from being vulnerable young adults to successful, empowered artists and anti-trafficking advocates. Also, it is Nepal’s first contemporary circus.

Saraswati talks about how circus is a huge part of the person she is and that she’s determined to chart out a life from it. But things aren’t easy. “It’s more than a decade now, I still struggle with the word ‘circus’ itself which has a bad reputation and people don’t see circus performers as artistes,” she says. “Maybe it’s a cultural thing where circus is regarded poorly. At times, we aren’t confident to state our profession,” she adds.

Circus Kathmandu has staged international events where the artistes have become brand ambassadors for Nepal, wowing audiences with not just acrobatics but also their incredible stories of struggle and survival. “I have travelled to Norway, Australia, the UK, Denmark, Dubai sharing my story, and training young performers,” she says.

Despite all that has happened in her life, she believes that the circus is what has given her an identity. And through it, she wants to speak about social evils and spark meaningful conversations. In one such initiative by Circus Kathmandu, the members travel to various corners of the country and advocate about child marriage through acts. “These acts have been named advocacy drama by the audiences,” she laughs. These advocacy dramas are carried out twice a month.

Saraswati doesn’t see herself doing anything else, this is her life. But is the circus life enough to sustain themselves and their families especially since Circus Kathmandu is run largely on fundraiser shows and donations? Even the trainers are volunteers. “We are in a bad shape right now. Three months before COVID-19 hit the country, we were jobless,” she shares. Earlier, the platform was supported by British Embassy but now they have been asked to sustain on their own. “The embassy says we aren’t receiving any funds for Circus Kathmandu,” she adds. Many of the circus members have left and the rest hardly get any work offers.

As a single mother, Saraswati’s biggest concern is getting funds for Circus Kathmandu. “We had a studio in Jhamsikhel but not anymore. The circus is dying,” she says. In terms of resources and support, Circus Kathmandu needs all the help it can get. Sponsorships, a good training team, and better space and equipment are definitely some of the basic requirements that are needed immediately. Most of the materials they have are second-hand. There are things that have been donated by other circuses around the world.

There are many who have been inspired by her. In fact, her life has been documented in a film named “Even When I Fall”. Directed by Kate McLarnon and Sky Neal, the film follows trafficking survivors Saraswati Adhikari and Sheetal Ghimire, showing their rescue and their entry into Nepal’s first and only contemporary circus, Circus Kathmandu. “It happened two years back when Sky Neal approached me and Sheetal. They say the documentary will help raise funds for Circus Kathmandu and will inspire many to live with heads held high,” she states.

Currently, Saraswati is surviving on the savings she has. Worrying about the future of her three sons, she says, “If things don’t settle, I am scared I will have to borrow money and open up a tiny grocery shop.”