Art from adversity: Former child slaves take the tiger by the tail at Jackson’s Lane

Renu Ghalan in a ball while Loan TP Hoang lights a fire. Picture: Mark Robson

Renu Ghalan in a ball while Loan TP Hoang lights a fire. Picture: Mark Robson - Credit: Archant

Two Nepalese artists who were sold to Indian circuses as slaves, tell the heartrending story of their lost childhoods at Jackson’s Lane in Highgate.

Loan Hoang comforts Renu Ghalan. Picture: Tom Caldino

Loan Hoang comforts Renu Ghalan. Picture: Tom Caldino - Credit: Archant

Renu Ghalan and Aman Tamang have re-used the skills that were forced upon them as child slaves to create an emotionally potent and technically dazzling show.

A blend of spoken word and skills including straps, acrobatics, silks and double hoop, As A Tiger in The Jungle recounts the harrowing detail of being taken from their their Nepalese villages when Renu was five and Aman six.

They were then sold across the border into circuses where they were beaten and forced to perform four shows a day.

“We are from poor families and my parents’ generation were not educated, too many mouths to feed. They were tricked into selling us to the traffickers who told them we were going off to better lives,” says Tamang.

“Our families were promised that they would receive money from the circus and we would be well looked after. That was not true. We never saw our families and we never got money. They treated us badly and worked us hard like donkeys.”

Ali Williams ex artistic director of NoFit State circus worked with the duo on a show which also focuses on how they overcame adversity after being rescued by a charity set up to free Nepalese child slaves.

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“Philip Holmes’ charity started doing rescues when they heard about the number of children that were being kept as slaves in Indian circuses,” adds Ghalan.

“They brought the police with them and our parents to identify us. That was hard, we hadn’t seen each other for a long time. I was only five when I went to the circus and I stayed until I was 14 so I was there a long time. They took us back to Nepal where we were resettled in a hostel and put in school. Some people were able to go home but others were looked after by the charity until they finished school.”

The pair then joined a group of ex circus performers who after working with contemporary UK circus practitioners vowed to make positive use of their skills by making a different kind of circus.

“We were living with many friends who all had the same experience and could all do tricks,” says Ghalan. “Some people came from the UK, did circus workshops and started Circus Kathmandu. Then Ali came and worked with us for a year. By the end we were good performers and enjoying making shows. Ali took us to play in Norway and the UK. We saw how great circus is and now we like to do it. It is good that we can make a living from it. We missed a lot of school so now we are grown up we don’t have many chances to work other than in circus.”

So how does it feel to be telling their own stories on stage?

“It is hard sometimes as we did not have a good childhood but we are also telling the story of lots more children who share the same story so its not just about us,” says Ghalan. “This makes it less personal but it is still emotional especially when the audience cry sometimes like in a sad movie”.

Raising awareness of the plight of child slaves was part of their motivation for making the piece.

“We wanted to tell everybody about our experience and try to stop it happening to other children. Not so many children are trafficked from Nepal to the Circus any more but trafficking still goes on a lot and we want to use the show to tell people.”

Both say that contemporary circus is “a lot more fun” than traditional circus.

“We have learnt to be good performers. We are paid and treated well, that makes a difference.”

Williams is glad to have created a meaningful, engaging performance from their stories.

“I am delighted to be able to employ Aman and Renu and utilise the skills they learnt in captivity in a positive and empowering way. This gives the performance an authenticity rarely seen on stage today”.