During the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, the American circus was the nation’s most popular form of entertainment. In an age before electronic media and commercial aviation, the circus provided Americans with a sensorium of experiences with the wider world as people and animals from around the globe performed incredible feats of strength, dexterity, flight, flexibility, and courage. The grand, spectacular pageantry of the railroad circuses of this era bore a striking similarity to the ceremonial processions and royal rituals in India during the Mughal and colonial British periods. This talk will explore these Indian influences on the American circus. Additionally, circus spectacles, such as “Oriental India” and the “Durbar of Delhi,” introduced American audiences to Indian dance traditions, yoga, pluralistic religious rituals, textile design, and a constellation of exotic animals, thus demonstrating the power of the circus to offer its audiences a glimpse of the world beyond provincial borders.
Janet M. Davis is Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of The Gospel of Kindness: Animal Welfare and the Making of Modern America (Oxford University Press, 2016); The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top (UNC Press, 2002); and the editor of Circus Queen and Tinker Bell: The Life of Tiny Kline (University of Illinois Press, 2008). She has won multiple prizes for her scholarship and teaching. She regularly serves as a humanities consultant, most recently for the award-winning documentary miniseries, “The Circus,” which aired nationally on PBS in 2018 and is now streaming on Netflix.