Standing in front of a foldable cot inside his tent, Tulsi Das Chowdhry picks up an old plastic box, his makeup kit. Inside, there is a bottle of liquid foundation, red lipstick, and a powder puff. He dots his wrinkled face with foundation, then spreads it evenly. Next, he reaches for a box of white zinc oxide powder. He will mix it with coconut oil and apply it around his eyes.
But first, he says a quick prayer while holding the box. Once his makeup is done, Tulsi changes into a shiny suit with a matching hat. The wizened 77-year-old is now ready for his act as the oldest circus clown in the country at the Great Bombay Circus.
Born in Chhapra, Bihar, Tulsi joined the company when he was 13 years old. “They had pitched their tent in our town and I happened to go for a show with my friends and family,” he recalls. For the first time, Tulsi Das saw people with dwarfism, like him. “They were all dressed as clowns, making people laugh,” he adds. He made up his mind to join them, for he had been dealing with ridicule from people in his town. “My friends too told me that the circus was apt for someone like me,“ he says.
The company took him in, and soon, Tulsi was in the able hands of his “gurus”, senior clowns Bhagyarath, Karnan, Prem Bahadur, and Damodaran. “They taught me facial expressions, body language, showed me how to do my own makeup. Which is why every time I apply makeup, I send them my gratitude,” he says.
Tulsi remembers the first time he waked into the big top in front of a huge audience, all dressed up. “I went numb, didn’t not know what to do,” he says. But his seniors held his hand, and gently eased him onto the stage.
Now, 63 years later, his fellow artistes refer to him as ‘mama.’ Tulsi raised several of them, right from feeding them when they were toddlers to rocking them to sleep.
He never married. “But I have been in love,” he says, his voice dipping. “She was the daughter of a couple from our company and grew up here. She too was in love with me.” He says he didn’t express his feelings for her, and she eventually married someone else. “Marriage wouldn’t have worked for me.”
As a part of the circus, he has has travelled across the country, and counts Tamil Nadu among his favourite places. “People here respect artistes and applaud our performance generously, which keeps us going,” he says. He adds, however, that there have been several occasions when people in the audience have made fun of them. “I fake laughter and tears, but sometimes, I cry for real on stage. But no one will see the difference.”
Tulsi now does simple acts despite the company asking him to retire. He wakes up every day and dresses up for three shows a day, sometimes four. The circus is so much a part of him that he says he cannot do anything else. He is a cancer survivor, and agrees that his body is not what it used to be. “I will die here,” he says. “This circus is my life.”
A shrill bell goes off inside the big top. Tulsi takes slow strides towards it from his tent. It is time for his next show.
The Great Bombay Circus is now in Coimbatore till the first week of August. There will be three shows every day at 1pm, 4pm and 7pm. It is headed to Tirupati next and will be in Chennai in December.