How a teenager from Bengal become a famous circus performer in 19th century Brazil

This biography of Suresh Biswas was originally published in 1899.

A start in the circus

In one of his visits to the county of Kent, he came one evening across a travelling circus troupe doing the provinces. It was by no means a first class troupe. In the evening when the members of the party assembled in the public room of the village inn, Suresh had an opportunity of entering into conversation with them, and very interesting appeared their talk, so much so that if Suresh’s own life had not been altogether free from adventures, theirs were all of romantic incidents, hairbreadth escapes, uncomfortable situations, etc. The glowing description some of them gave of life in the ring; of its joys and triumphs, created so strange an impression on the easily impressionable mind of our hero, that all that night he lay awake in his bed, seriously thinking of giving up his present occupation for a little circusing.

The next morning the first thing that Suresh did after breakfast was to seek the manager of the circus troupe who were to leave that day for Sussex, and offer his services as a gymnast and weightlifter. His proposal was received by the manager with a sly smile on his lips, for the latter could by no means divine that the slim figure before him could have sufficient strength to perform feats of strength though it might, to a certain extent, give evidence of skill.

“Try me,” asked Suresh, “and see if I’ll do.”

Willing to enjoy a little fun, the manager summoned to his presence the chief acrobat of the troupe, a man of herculean size and proportionate strength. “Would you like trying conclusions with Sam here?” asked the Manager.

“In wrestling, yes,” rejoined Suresh, with the utmost sangfroid.

The room was cleared and the two combatants took off their coats and shirts. Hercules as the acrobat was in strength, he soon found that he was no match for the cool nimbleness of the Indian. In a few rounds Suresh’s superior skill was manifest both to the manager and the members of the troupe who happened to be present.

Then our hero offered to perform on the horizontal and top bars. But his word was now taken as sufficient and the manager came to think that it would be a good catch to have him, if for nothing else, at least for the fact of his being an Indian. A bargain was struck then and there, and Suresh became a member of the itinerant circus troupe. This was then the opening of the profession in which he was destined to achieve such world-wide celebrity.

His salary, as a beginning, was fixed at 15 shillings per week, all expenses found. This was of course, a nominal salary considering the open liberality generally exercised by theatrical and circus Managers towards artistes, male and female. But Suresh was a novice and he was perfectly satisfied with the arrangement. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the conditions offered were beyond his expectations.

The tiger tamer

It was not, however, as a gymnast or acrobat that Suresh succeeded in making a name for himself. He first came prominently before the public as a tamer of wild animals, his reputation in this profession being undimmed even by his later achievements in the field of battle, at the mouth of the cannon or in the hands of the wild tribes of America.

While yet a member of the circus troupe, chance threw him in the way of Professor Jamrach, a well-known tamer who had paid several visits to the sunny East and had passed some time in India, attracted by the number, beauty and ferocity of the denizens of its trackless jungles.

The professor, a good man, had no Anglo-Indian prejudices and felt no scruples to take Suresh in as an apprentice to learn the dangerous though more honorable profession of training wild animals. Suresh became a member of his establishment and soon proved to his master that he would do no discredit to him.

Tiger and lion-taming came naturally to him, although the taming of other equally ferocious animals never proved any serious matter to him. After staying for two years with Professor Jamrach, Suresh began to look out for himself. At first he joined certain circus companies and made a tour of the continent, winning laurels wherever he went and performed.

His tigers and lions seemed to be quite docile and did his bidding like pet cats. The ease, the grace and the total want of fear that he exhibited quite astonished the people in every land he visited. He performed before Princes those dangerous feats which elicited applause even from Royal lips. Indeed, so great became his renown that he was allowed to give an exhibition of his wonderful mastery over the most ferocious and intractable brutes in the World’s Fair held at the Royal Agricultural Hall at London, in 1882 – a no mean honour to any tamer or acrobat, not to speak of an Indian, who is naturally looked down upon by his European brother. Suresh obtained many medals and certificates, a list of which would hardly prove of any real interest to our readers.

It was in one of these tours that Suresh met Mr Gazenbach [This is a misspelling of Hagenbeck, reproduced here as it appears in the original] of Hamburg, a very well-known tamer of wild animals and contractor for many Zoological Gardens in Europe. He would obtain animals from the East or the West, and after training them, sold them to various circus companies. Mr Gazenbach took a great fancy to our hero and offered him an appointment on his own large establishment at Hamburg on a higher salary than what he was in receipt of. He accepted the proposal and became the master-trainer. He managed these creatures so cleverly that they became strongly attached to him and would not eat save at his bidding.

There was one tigress which Suresh had named Fannie, and which he had, in a manner, brought up from its infancy. This animal became as docile as a cat and would purr and lick his hand whenever he came near its cage. Another of Suresh’s favourite in Gazenbach’s collection was a young elephant which went by the name of Bosco. It was the best player of the six elephants all of which had been trained by Suresh for the proprietor. Mr Jorge Carlo, the owner of a very big menagerie, purchased Bosco from Mr. Gazenbach for 5,000 francs. When the animal was removed by its new master and was thus separated from Suresh, it felt the separation so keenly that for several days together it refused to take any food whatever. This obliged Mr Jorge Carlo to make a handsome offer to Suresh, and to induce him to leave Mr Gazenbach and join him.

In 1885, we find Suresh making a tour of America with Wombwell’s Great London Menagerie in Brazil, and Mexico, where subsequently he stayed on and made himself still more famous by entering the Brazilian army. Everywhere the chief attraction of the show, as is evident from placards, handbills and newspaper notices, was Suresh’s play with lions. But it was not only as a tamer of wild animals that Suresh became known in the cities he visited with the menagerie, but also as a public speaker.

We have it on record in the La Cronica, the most influential and widely circulated newspaper in Buenos Ayres, for instance, that he addressed large public meetings of intelligent people on subjects at once abstruse and metaphysical. His lectures, again, were not delivered in English but in the vernacular of the country visited by him, for he spoke fluently, not only in English but also in French, German and Portuguese. We have already said that during his leisure hours, he not only mastered these different languages but carefully studied the philosophies of the West and the East.

Nor did his studies terminate here. It would be natural to expect him reading novels, romances and books of adventure, but correctly speaking it was these which he eschewed altogether. Frivolity was quite foreign to his nature. He loved to remain alone with his thoughts and his books and instruments. He did not freely mix in society nor speak much or without purpose. In the solitude of his own room he liked to commune with the master-minds of the world, past and present, to learn from them what they had to teach, to profit by and emulate their example. They were his friends, his intimates. In them he found that companionship and solace for which he had been hankering for long years.

Excerpted with permission from Lieut. Suresh Biswas: His Life and Adventures, H Dutt, Jadavpur University Press.

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