Kannan Bombayo – The Jumping Devil

NP ‘Kunchy’ Kannan and his incredible life story

Back in those days, kids and adults went to see the circus, and the events under the big top fascinated us, be it the flying acrobats, the ferocious animals, the rubbery contortionists or the funny clowns. Many of the performers were youngsters from North Malabar, Tellicherry to be precise, so also the circus managers. But there was one whom we never saw, who had once enthralled thousands in the western world, setting a golden trail for others to follow. That was the diminutive NP Kannan, known in the west as Kannan Bombayo (Kannan from Bombay) – described as the jumping devil, the unrivaled wire rope jumper, the greatest funambulist ever, and the somersaulter extraordinaire! He was a byword in the lips of European and American circus goers, though hardly anyone had ever seen him perform in India. Well, when you read his story, you may wonder why fate was so unkind to him. Some said Hitler watched his performance at Berlin, and called him the ‘Indian jumping devil’, while others mention Roosevelt watching him from his wheelchair, performing in America. What do you think? Let’s find out.

Kalari’s were the arenas where young men practiced martial arts in medieval Malabar to become fighting machines. Malabar was famed for its 108 Kalaris and ballads testify to the feats of the many fighters, dueling in their time. When the British disarmed the region after the Pazhassi revolt and the Moplah disturbances, most of the Kalari’s of Malabar sunk into decadence, and the fighting techniques gradually degenerated into a performing art form, which people today term the ‘Kalaripayattu’. Up north in Tellicherry, however, young boys, mainly of the Thiyya caste continued to practice in Circus Kalaris and when they proved popular, found gainful employment in those traveling circuses. Nisha in her lovely book and research paper brings those ancient circus schools to life and introduces the master Keeleri Kunhikannan, the guru who trained our protagonist.

As the story goes, Keeleri Kunhikannan, after intensive training in various physical disciplines, returned to Tellicherry and decided that gymnastics and circus arts should be taught to aspiring youngsters. Whether he picked his skills from a European circus in Madras or from Chatre’s circus in 1887 is not clear, but he decided to start a school and later send his graduates, to Chatre’s Grand Indian Circus. Chatre’s circus itself came into being after Chatre watched the 1879 performance of the Royal Italian Circus led by Giuseppe Chiarini in Bombay. Chiarini who was touring India went bankrupt and it appears that Chatre purchased the Italian’s equipment. Keeleri eventually started his circus school, adjoining his house, at Chirakkara near Tellicherry, Kannur in 1888. The name of this institute was the ‘All India Circus Training Hall’.

Somewhat of a rebel and a non-conformist, Keeleri joined the Bhrama Samaj, but when his own community decided to outcaste him, he converted to Christianity and is said to have favored students from the fishermen’s (Mukkuva) community, for his new school. The students, both men and women, were trained to master skills such as the horizontal bar, varma chattam (frog), trapeze, rope dance, weightlifting, rings, foot juggling, pole, and wire items in this circus kalari. They went on to become famous names in many a circus company and soon, it became clear to aspiring youngsters that this was a route to stardom and riches. As Nisha puts it, these circus rings witnessed the heroic transformation of their lives.

Sreedharan Champad tells us - Kunchy Kannan was born in 1907 as the son of Eerayi Korumban, a lowly farmer at Chirakkara. One day Keeleri walking by, heard a child’s sobs and when he looked up, he saw the little child Kannan sitting on the high branch of a jackfruit tree. Tearfully the child told him that the fragrance of the ripe fruit had lured him there, and that he was afraid to climb down. Keeleri smiled and asked Kannan to jump into his hands, which he did. The boy NP Kannan was taken straight to the circus Kalari and a glorious acrobatic career began, at the age of seven.

Dominique Jando feels that the boy’s brother-in-law, OK Chandu was perhaps the one who taught him the tricks on a coir rope, which was quite elastic but required tightening often. Kannan, just five feet tall, soon became an expert at it, doing his rope summersaults (normal, twisted, and double back) high up with the rope about 13 feet above the ground. He made his acrobatic debut in 1917 at the Sheshappa Circus owned by Sandow Sheshappa, but it was in 1922 that he started the bouncing rope act at the Whiteway circus, presumably at Trichur. Kannan continued on for many years with the Whiteway Circus. In addition to performing, he managed parts of the troupe as well. Not quite content, he transferred between other circuses and some years later, left Indian shores. Most of the story of his short but brilliant life abroad, is brought to light in the riveting Canestrelli book. The Canestrellis were (and still are) an old and extended Italian circus family, with origins dating back to the mid-nineteenth century; they created their own circus in Padua circa 1903.

Kanna’s fate was decided when the Canestrelli troupe touring Asia with the Harray Handy Circus and later the Isako’s Royal Circus, finished their acts in Malaysia and returned once again to India for their final performances New Delhi, after which they would depart from Colombo to Czechoslovakia in March 1931. They had a 6-week gap, and it was decided to go and to perform with Keeleri’s Circus in Kerala during this idle time. It was during that visit that they met Kunchy Kannan, the tumbler and summersaulter. Ottavio Canestrelli states - A frail, yet resilient young man, Kunchy was an outstanding tumbler and proficient in the extremely difficult round off double back somersault. He was also chief instructor of the circus apprentices and in charge of a group of some thirty children who were being trained for all kinds of acts in the Keeleri Circus. However, Kunchy’s foremost talent resided upon the bounding rope.

Kannan struck a friendship with Ottavio’s younger brother Federico and when it was time for the Italians to leave, mentioned his desire to accompany the troupe to Europe. Ottavio thought about it and decided that it could work out as a decent business proposition and the Indian jumping rope act could become popular. Thus, it was all firmed up and as Kannan already had his passport, the travel was not an issue. The voyage was uneventful, and the team stayed at Venice for a while and later proceeded to Bratislava to join up with the Kludsky Circus.

Canestrelli went on to modernize Kannan’s rope act, he had the coir rope substituted by manila and elastic, the bamboo cross poles at either end were changed to more stylish steel tubes. After a nine-month practice session on the new apparatus with safety belts, Kannan was finally ready for performances, with the rope strung at a 12’ height. Kannan’s act was added during the last two months at Kludsky’s circus and was well received and soon became a sensation, so much so that the Canestrelli team received much acclaim and got the attention of America’s foremost entertainer – John Ringling. They signed a contract with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus, then considered the greatest show on earth. Before traveling to America, another important event occurred, the group traveled to pick up and train Canestrelli’s sister-in-law Filomena Lentini for the ladder act.

Kannan Bombayo, the making of the name

Pat Valdo, the art director of Ringling Circus wanted Kunchy Kannan to be given a nickname palatable to the American audience and Ottavio chimed in with Bombayo – which was quickly accepted as it ‘sounded "Indian" enough to an American ear, and was easy to pronounce’. He was introduced with much fanfare, his exceptional skill impressed all the administrators and the press and publicity departments and even before the show opened his name created a buzz.

Dominique Jando explains - Kannan Bombayo was one of the featured highlights of the new show, which also included The Codonas, Dorothy Herbert, the original Wallendas, and Hugo Zacchini —not too bad a company for an American debut! Kannan Bombayo was featured in the center ring and given a spectacular entrance, a true production number in which the Canestrelli family participated, including Ottavio who opened the proceedings parading a giant python named Satana (which he had acquired in Singapore at the beginning of his South-East Asian tour), before Kunchy’s own entrance mounted on an elephant, with another python looped around Kunchy's shoulders.

Marriage to Filomena

It was in America that Filomena and Kannan fell in love and decided to get married. Kannan converted to Christianity and the 22-year-olds were married in San Antonio, Texas on September 19, 1932. Canestrelli adds - Their marriage happened to coincide with the annual meeting of “Circus Fans of America,” and this grandest of all circus fan clubs honored Filomena and Bombayo with a gigantic Mexican-style party, complete with Mexican music and hot tamales. They threw the party outdoors and used the personnel coaches of the circus train as a sidewall.

Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus

With the 1933 season beckoning, a segment of the Barnum Bailey team which included the Canestrellis and Kannan Bombayo, found themselves transferred to the Ringling sister unit, i.e., the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, where Kannan was soon to star as a solo performer which his own advertisement poster. It was even grander and his entrance on an elephant and accompanied by a parade of showgirls in oriental costumes. It also included an act featuring Bombayo, ‘The Man from India’, leaping over elephants.


Kannan’s success stories from America reached the circus owners in Europe and soon the prestigious Bertram Mills circus, signed Kunchy and Filomena. It has been mentioned that on the opening night, Kannan Bombayo performed in front of Prince George, the Duke of Kent. The performances were top-notch and spectacular, so Cyril Mills signed Kannan for the 1935 Bertram Mills touring season as well.

The terrible accident

Kannan was back in the US and getting ready to complete his last touring season with Hagenbeck-Wallace, but by then the old team had split, with Ottavio transferred to the AIG Barnes unit. Kunchi performed with his wife Filomena and with Ottavio gone, the catcher under the rope was Lalo Codona, who was not quite used to some of the intricate details in Kannan’s repertoire. It appears that Kannan often hesitated for a moment just before throwing his double somersault— something which could mess the trick’s tempo and result in bad consequences. And, well, that happened once, Kannan missed his double summersault, and Lalo, taken by surprise by the missed timing, was unable to catch him or break his fall. Kunchy fell on his back and lay stunned for a while, but got back eventually. Unfortunately, he suffered a lung contusion that was neither detected, diagnosed nor treated.  Kannan continued with his rigorous exercises and training, not taking any rest, exacerbating the illness and soon his weakened lungs made him prone to frequent lung infections.

Back to the UK

Back in the US, Kannan performed for the Al Sirat Grotto Circus in Cleveland, Ohio, his final US 1935 performance, and the couple moved back again to London to tour for the Bertram Mills Circus. Happy tidings were at hand, the couple was blessed with a little boy, whom they named Charlie. He would also perform in Paris for the legendary Cirque Medrano, where he was a big hit. Here, he reunited with Lalo Codona, the catcher, but I suppose such was the admirable camaraderie in the circus community, they paired for Kannan’s act. Reporting the act, the famous French circus chronicler Serge admiringly dubbed Bombayo "le félin du câble" ("the feline of the wire") in the magazine Coemedia.

The 1935 Evening Telegraph report on the Arbroath night stated – Bombayo the Hindu, a wiry little chap in a unique tight rope act with a dash of acrobatics thrown in! The Fife free press covering Kircaldy mentioned – On the slack wire, Bombayo, the Hindoo performed amazing feats of evolution and balancing, culminating in a remarkable double summersault. This is an act which requires accurate timing and judgement and yet, Bombayo made it appear almost easy to execute! Other papers mentioned how he received repeated rounds of applause for his breathtaking acts, which made a viewer dizzy.

The 1936 western mail stated thus about the night at Plymouth – There was young Bombayo, the Hindoo, who leaping on his tight rope, turned a double summersault in the air and landed steadily on his feet on the rope again. He is claimed to be the only person in the world who can do this trick. He jumped up and down on his rope 10 ft above the arena, like a jack in the box!

The Mercury and Herald stated that his acts (in 1937) provided the last word in tight rope performances while The Daily mail of August 1937, reviewing the Bertram mills opening night at Hull stated – A neat little aristocrat is Bombayo, the Hindoo, in his dress of gold and his tiny golden slippers. With slow controlled grace which comes close to invitation, he bounces about on a tight rope….Wonders in equilibrium demonstrated by Bombayo – said the Belper news.

The most interesting press report was an article in the Leeds Mercury July 1937 – Caravan cookery – Real Indian Curry – I (Shirley Oliver) found Mrs. Bombayo cooking a curry for her Hindu husband and her little three-year-old son. She was putting all sorts of exciting things into olive oil, butter, onions, a little carrot, fresh peas, sliced potatoes, apples, and a little meat. Plenty of curry sauce and some hard-boiled eggs were added. The rice was served separately ---- each grain was separate., Grated coconut was served in a separate dish with the curry.

Bombayo and dignitaries – Hitler, Roosevelt, Mussolini

It is said that Hitler saw his act at the Berlin Wintergarten performance, but there is little corroboration, though his performance did take place in 1936. The black and white photo with Filomena under the rope is taken by Willy Pragher. All we do know is that Hitler and Goring used to watch circuses, and whether he made the comment ‘flying devil’ is unclear. Hitler was, according to a CIA report, particularly fond of tight rope acts and even contacted or rewarded acrobats, who he felt were good. So, it would not be surprising if he noticed Kannan, examined his shoes as rumored and gave him an autograph titling him ‘the jumping devil’. Similarly, the meeting with FDR - Roosevelt sounds unlikely as FDR’s connections with the Ringling Bros was in 1942, so much later. Another article said Mussolini saw him off in his final voyage to India, but that is also uncorroborated and seems unlikely.

Serge who interviewed him in 1937 wrote - When I approached him, in a large international circus where he was playing star, he first offered me his smile, his mysterious smile. He was leaning against the side of the red curtain which, in a few minutes, was going to swallow it up. He wore a sumptuous Hindu costume of white silk, trimmed night blue and studded with brilliants. He had covered his shoulders with an immense, silky cape, which gave him the appearance of a conspirator, come from the sun. An Indian turban completed the ensemble. I saw his pupils and, unwittingly, I suddenly realized that this man was sentenced to death. So suddenly, for no apparent reason, Bombayo the Indian broke all his commitments, tore up his contracts, packed his trunks and sailed for his native India. We thought he was going to come back. But he alone knew. A great langueur had taken hold of him….

Nevertheless, Kannan spent 1938 performing at a number of theaters in Scandinavia and Germany.

Time to heal

Though the name Kannan Bombayo still spelled magic in the circus community, he was a weakened man and had contracted Tuberculosis, which in those days was a terminal disease. Filomena hid it from him, and eventually Kannan understanding that he had to rest and recuperate, canceled a program with Circus Busch.

Filomena and Kannan then went to Naples to rest at the Lentini family home, but I guess it was all too late, nothing much could be done, and Filomena decided that it was time to take her husband back to India, so that he could die in his motherland. So sadly, in February 1939, Kannan, Filomena and their five-year-old Charlie set sail for India.

The last days

Kannan Bombayo was never to see his homeland again. He died near Athens, two days before reaching Bombay, on February 18, 1939. As was the practice, the ship’s captain suggested a sea burial, but Filomena contacted Ottavio and the decision was made to conduct his last services at Bombay.

It is more appropriate to quote Ottavio now - Unbeknownst to Filomena, many fans, friends, and relatives were preparing an enormous surprise welcome at the dock in Bombay for Kunchy Kannan; the first great circus star out of India. On hand to welcome him were over a hundred people, including city officials, former pupils, great performers from all over India, newspapermen, photographers, and, of course, Professor Keeleri Kunhikannan, the proud uncle who had launched Kunchy’s career many years earlier. The dock was alive with excitement as the crowd waited to greet Bombayo. People were holding welcome banners, flowers, and a band played Indian melodies. But there was no Bombayo. Still adjusting to the tragedy, Filomena sought out Professor Keeleri as soon as she could find him. With tears in her eyes, she related the story of Kunchy’s accident, the tubercular condition, and the fact that he had died on board the ship two days earlier. She said this as she held on to the hand of their six-year-old son. It was a tremendous blow to all when Keeleri announced this to the welcoming party. Many began to weep, and some fell on their knees to pray. When they learned that Kunchy had changed his religion, many of them became superstitious and believed his death to have been the result. The party quickly broke up, and the body of Bombayo was brought off in silence. Kunchy Kannan had indeed come home, but in a way that no one anticipated.

Bombayo’s body was apparently cremated at the Sabari Crematorium and his ashes were then buried, presumably at Sewri.

Filomena after Bombayo

A July 1940 report shows that Filomena (now presented in the circuit as Mrs Kannan Bombayo) was performing as a ringmaster for the Rosaires Circus - the program under her direction comprising two individual and one group riding acts, roller balancing, two pony numbers, flying rings; performing bear, pooch and lion acts presented by a parson's son, Martin Hawkes; trick cycling and clown entrees….

As Jando puts it - Filomena and Charlie spent a couple of weeks with Keeleri Kunhikannan, and returned to Italy. She then went to England, where she remarried. Kunchy's son, Charlie, died at a young age …. She had another child to whom she gave her former married name, Kannan.

A few others picked up and presented his routine, after his passing - As you will recall, Kannan Bombayo not only did the backward summersault but also the forward double somersault. His sister-in-law, the ‘Italian circus queen’, Tosca Canestrelli seems to have mastered the trick after Kannan’s death.

Bombayo’s days were different from those today. In a period where opportunities were scarce, Kannan accepted huge challenges and decided to prove to the world that he was ‘the king of the ropes, which he did. He was fortunate to have his Canestrelli sponsors, but the hard work was his. Sadly, his days were cut short by that unfortunate fall, and while he lorded of the ropes for just seven years, is still remembered as one of the greatest circus artists of the twentieth century.


The Grand Gypsy – a memoir – Ottavio Canestrelli, Ottavio Gesmundo
The Jumping Devils: A tale of circus bodies – Occasional NMML paper – PR Nisha
Jumbos and Jumping devils, A social history of Indian Circus – PK Nisha
An Album of Indian tops – Sreedharan Champad
Kannan Bombayo – Dominique Jando (Circopedia)
Histoire du Cirque (Paris, Librairie Gründ, 1947) - Serge

I would like to specifically acknowledge with thanks, the original works of Nisha, Ottavio and Dominique, without whose inputs, this little article would not have taken shape.

Pics – All images courtesy Dominique Jando -http://www.circopedia.org/Kannan_Bombayo, acknowledged with much thanks