The city as a Gothic circus
Whether it is in the upmarket discotheque or the downmarket ladies' bar, or the circus and amusement park set somewhere between them on the social scale, the attitude to pleasure is fleeting and transactional at best, and sadistic and exploitative at worst. While the sociology of the transaction can only be faulted for its Teflon emotions, however, the sociology of exploitation is grim business.
A circus illustrates the tragic and sordid side of entertainment.
ALL great cities are split personalities, and their schizophrenia is perhaps most eloquently phrased in Victor Hugo's memorable novel, Notre Dame de Paris. As Hugo's protagonist discovers in the course of this intensely Gothic work, there is a city of day and a city of night. The former is the site of regular work, bound by the conventions of propriety and the laws and ordered compulsions of social being; but, passing into the latter, the innocent finds it a domain of unregulated play, where the more primal and chaotic instincts prevail, rules are broken, and the interstitial spaces of the sleeping city are transformed into strange and not quite sublime addresses. In the "Court of Miracles" that the great city becomes by night in Hugo's novel, criminals rule and buffoons celebrate an overturning of values; the judges and gendarmes, symbols of the establishment, are conspicuous by their absence from its proceedings.
A similar phenomenon might also be observed at work in that exquisite but tormented Japanese phenomenon, the ukiyo-e the floating world of poets and courtesans, painters and dancers, dilettantes and print-makers where a nocturnal addiction to pleasure replaces the daytime addiction to protocol and duty, mercantile profit and courtly advancement. Behind the images of fragile beauty, there lies concealed a cycle of disease, cruelty and age: the rosy-cheeked peasant girl sold to a house in the courtesans' quarter, the poet whose inspiration has dried up, the painter who has come to hate his colours and his patrons, the ageing geisha turned out of doors.
There are elements both of Notre Dame de Paris and of the ukiyo-e in contemporary Mumbai, which has already asserted its claim to being one of the great cities of the world, in terms of its urban sprawl as well as its population. It also qualifies for this position on the basis of its sociological symptoms. Geared as they are to the treadmill of work, the people of such a metropolis certainly require their moments of play, their avenues of pleasure and entertainment, if the urban tensions are to be held back from the critical point of combustion. But the nocturnal forms of play that the denizens of this great city seek out tend to be veined by the same emotions that characterise their working, daytime life.
Whether it is in the upmarket discotheque or the downmarket ladies' bar, or the circus and amusement park set somewhere between them on the social scale, the attitude to pleasure is fleeting and transactional at best, and sadistic and exploitative at worst. While the sociology of the transaction can only be faulted for its Teflon emotions, however, the sociology of exploitation is a far grimmer business. Of all these forms, it is the circus that best (or, in the circumstances, worst) illustrates the tragic and sordid side of entertainment. How could it have been otherwise, considering that the performing animals have been corralled into the world of play, not out of choice, but by force? And if these animals haven't had the slightest choice in the matter of entering the circus, they have had (until recent efforts towards remedial legislation) hardly any avenue out, except death or abandonment.
You do not have to be Maneka Gandhi to accept that many circuses have treated their animals in the coarsest and most deplorable manner imaginable. The ringmaster's secret comes to light every now and again, as it did a few years ago in Mumbai, when an animal rights organisation fought a legal battle against one of the better-known circuses that periodically pitch their tents in the city. The revelations were ghastly. The circus had caged its ageing lionesses in appalling conditions: broken by nearly two decades of mistreatment and malnutrition, they were found to be suffering from internal bleeding, tooth decay and blindness. Despite this, a callous management had goaded them on to turn tricks for a populace happily oblivious to their condition.
What compounds this horror is the fact that a majority of circus audiences have traditionally comprised children. If children internalise the idea that animals exist as animated objects for the delectation of human audiences, it is little wonder that they grow into adults who perpetuate such an unequal hierarchy of species in their behaviour and choices.
It is a Gothic, infernal-Romantic enough image, one that Delacroix, Gericault or Goya might have prized: the lioness mauled and blinded, robbed of the last vestige of leonine dignity, reduced to the status of a performing animal. And the circus lioness in Mumbai is no less instructive an image than Hugo's "Court of Miracles" or the delicate girl at a window in the ukiyo-e print: she is charged with the same tragic sense of beauty poisoned at the root; she symbolises the destructiveness of a market that deals in unbridled pleasure.
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