From World War-II to circus company owner: The legendary life and times of Gemini Sankaran

The patriarch of Indian Circus died in Kerala's Kannur district due to age-related ailments on 23 April. He was 99.

ByK A Shaji

Published Apr 24, 2023 | 6:43 PMUpdatedApr 24, 2023 | 6:43 PM

Gemini Sankaran with Nehru

The patriarch of the Indian circus industry has passed on.

MV Sankaran — popularly known as Gemini Sankaran after the circus company he had founded in 1951 —  died of age-related ailments in Kerala’s Kannur district on Sunday, 23 April.

The Indian circus legend was 99 when he breathed his last, leaving behind a trailblazing journey that became part of the folklore.

He will be cremated at Payyambalam, Kannur, on Tuesday, 25 April.

Sankaran’s life is part of the history of the Indian circus industry, its rise and sudden decline after India banned exhibiting wild animals — barring elephants — in 1998.

The industry lost its remaining sheen when circus companies were prohibited from parading elephants in 2013.

Life and times of Shankaran

Moorkkoth Vengakkandi Sankaran was born to Kavinisheri Raman Nair and Moorkoth Kalyaniyamma on 13 June, 1924, at Kolassery, a village three kilometres from Kannur’s Thalassery.

Gemini Sankaran

Gemini Sankaran at the age of 99. (Supplied)

After dropping out of school while in Class VII, he pursued Kalaripayattu — Kerala’s traditional martial arts — and circus under the tutelage of Keeleri Kunhikannan.

A young Sankaran ran a grocery store for a while. Once it went south, he shut shop and joined the army in 1941 for a monthly salary of ₹18.

World War-II (WW-II) was then raging, and after completing training in Allahabad, Sankaran was attached to the wireless unit. His unit was assigned to watch for enemy aircraft. His salary by then had increased to ₹45 a month.

He was in Calcutta (now Kolkatta) when the Japanese fighter jets pounded Diamond Harbour, now a picnic spot.

After WW-II, Sankaran left the army, and returned home in 1946. At Thalassery he continued training for the circus under another guru, MK Raman. His initial instructor, Kunhikannan, died in 1939.

He trained under Raman for two years before joining the Boss Lion Circus in Kolkata as a trapeze artiste. It marked the beginning of Sankaran’s journey as a circus artiste and legend.

From artiste to owner

Sankaran bought Vijaya Circus for ₹6,000 in 1951, and rechristened it the Gemini Circus, after his zodiac sign. Later, he acquired Jumbo Circus in 1977.


Gemini Sankaran with Indira Gandhi. (File photo: Supplied)

Performing in and outside India, Gemini won laurels. It soon became India’s biggest circus company, and he became highly influential, rubbing shoulders with the who’s who in the national capital.

The then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was one of the patrons of Gemini Circus. At Nehru’s initiative, Gemini represented India at a World Circus Carnival in the erstwhile USSR in 1963.

Indian Presidents Babu Rajendra Prasad, S Radhakrishnan, and Zakir Husain Khan were among Sankaran’s top fans. So were prime ministers Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai, and Rajiv Gandhi.

Martin Luther King Jr, Lord Mountbatten, and astronaut Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova, the first woman in space, too were friends.

Sankaran used to show his photograph with Martin Luther King Jr and other luminaries to whoever visited him.

In Kerala, CPI(M) stalwarts EMS Namboodiripad and AK Gopalan were his well-wishers.

Raj Kapoor’s iconic Mera Naam Joker and Kamal Haasan’s Apoorva Sagodharangal were among the movies shot in Gemini’s tents. Sankaran also co-produced a few films, notably Sreemath Bhagavatheeyam and Ramanan.

His love for the circus was unflinching. “Circus is an art form older than cinema. It always remained the poor man’s entertainment,” he had said.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said Gemini Sankaran had played a major role in modernising the Indian circus as he included foreign performers and tricks. Vijayan termed his demise a great loss for the nation.

For Thalassery, he was one of its most cherished sons.

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A ban and its aftermath

Sankaran always attempted to keep Thalassery’s circus legacy afloat. The circus, its performers, and the animals involved were inseparable from Sankaran till his last breath.

When laws prevented displaying wild animals and the pandemic years crippled the whole industry, he became a symbol of hope for the industry.

Both troupes, Gemini and Jumbo, were fast growing when the government banned circuses from parading wild animals. Gemini then had around 600 artistes, and Jumbo, 400.

After the ban, Sankaran handed over the reins of the business to sons Ajay Shankar and Ashok Shankar.

He looked on helplessly when the government took away 62 lions, 40 tigers, seven black panthers, three chimpanzees, six bears, and four leopards, among other animals, from his two companies.

“Animals were a major draw, and their absence resulted in a low turnout,” Sankaran later said.

There was a time when Gemini alone was bigger than a zoo with 20 elephants, 40 lions, 15 tigers, 30 horses, six camels, three bears, three zebras, and two sea lions.

He stood with his staff and animals, never allowing them to starve. He died at a time when the whole circus industry was on a path to recovery.

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Advocate of capturing wild animals

Sankaran was feeding four of his elephants —  forced to retire from the circus — when this correspondent met him at his residence in Varam village about 15 years ago.


Sankaran with artistes of Gemini Circus. (File photo/ Supplied)

After the ban, he took the elephants home. The ban forced Sankaran to hand over many wild animals to the government, especially zoos.

He was worried about the shoddy treatment meted out to these animals and their untimely deaths. Sankaran decided he would protect at least the elephants. Later, the circuses got some relief after the government conditionally permitted the display of elephants.

Sankaran believed that the ban on exhibiting wild animals broke the backbone of the circus industry. He felt the ban affected the character of circus shows.

He also wanted to capture wild elephants. The animal trainer in him always found capturing elephants and other crop-raiding animals.

When asked how he developed his interest in circus, he recalled a local street performer, Kittunni of Kolassery. Kittunni was the star of a 10-year-old Sankaran.

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Indian circus — a retrospective

Influential Italian circus director Giuseppe Chiarini and his circus team toured India in 1879. Their acts caught the fancy of many, including Balasaheb Patwardhan, ruler of the then princely state of Kurundwad in Maharashtra.

After watching the performance, the ruler inspired Vishnupant Moreshwar Chhatre, the superintendent of stables, to launch a circus company, and the Great Indian Circus was born in 1880.

Almost seven years after its inception, Chhatre’s circus reached Thalassery. The town then had a high European presence. Thalassery boasts of baking India’s first Christmas cake and having the first cricket team.

Thalassery took its initial steps towards the circus when Keeleri Kunhikannan, a gymnastics instructor at the Basel Evangelical Mission Parsi School, watched the performance of the Great Indian Circus.

After knowing that Chhatre’s team lacked the required skills in acrobats, Kunhikannan promised to help. He blended gymnastics and Kalaripayattu.

The circus capital

He established India’s first circus training centre at Pulambil village on the outskirts of Thalassery.

The training centre and Kunhikannan inspired the establishment of several Indian circus groups, which included the Malabar Grand, Grand Fairy, Whiteway, Great Rayman, Great Lion, Fairy, Eastern, Oriental, Gemini, and Great Bombay.

Interestingly, most companies were headquartered in Thalassery and found artistes from the region’s predominantly agricultural community.

By the beginning of the 1940s, Thalassery became India’s circus capital. Among the 50 circuses in India then, 40 belonged to Thalassery.

Even now, almost 90 percent of India’s circus artistes hail from Thalassery and surrounding areas such as Mahe, Chokli, and Koothuparamba.

Among India’s dozen topmost circus companies in India, 10 belong to Thalassery.