India’s affair with the circus, its love, and later, disdain for it, took root in December 1879. Giuseppe Chiarini, from Italy, had brought the Royal Italian Circus to Mumbai, camping out at Maidan near what is now Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus. Chiarini cast a spell on his audience, who were fascinated by how the animals pranced about and performed unimaginable stunts.
Over the decades that followed, Europe’s numerous travelling circuses stopped over in India, regaling thousands with astonishing feats and mind-boggling acts. India decidedly fell in love with the circus, spawning its own industry that thrived until about the early 1990s. From 300-odd native troupes then, the number has dropped to around 30 today. No wonder Rajesh Mudki is over the moon as Cirque du Soleil hits Indian shores for the first time. “I believe India is more than ready to rediscover circus art,” he says.
Mudki is one of the 30 performers and musicians along with fellow mallakhamb (the Indian sport of aerial yoga and gymnastics that revolves around a pole or khamba) artist Kalpesh Jadhav. They are the only Indians who will take their place under Cirque du Soleil’s iconic Big Top in Mumbai and New Delhi this winter for Bazzar, which premiered on Thursday at Bandra’s MMRDA Grounds. This is the Canadian company’s first foray into India and a rare occasion because Cirque almost never debuts a new show outside of Montreal, its home turf. But making history calls for new strides and India can’t wait.
“Cirque du Soleil is nothing like the Indian population has seen before, but I’m confident we will give it a warm welcome,” says Mudki. “India has a great thirst for entertainment with its thriving film industry and long-standing tradition of circus. I believe Cirque du Soleil is complementary to Bollywood movies – it is so creative and advanced that Indian audiences already have an open mind to art and creativity.”
Mudki is an accomplished practitioner – he trained for 25 years at the Sane Guruji Fitness School of Mumbai, in mallakhamb, yoga, aerial rope, gymnastics and acrobatics. He has also been part of the Terence Lewis Contemporary Dance Company. To perform with Cirque is the next-level dream he has been nurturing since 2006, when he watched them for the first time. “My eyes popped out,” he says. “So, as a mallakhamb artist born and raised in Mumbai, having the world premiere here and touring in India is exalting.”
Apart from performing, Mudki also co-founded the mallakhamb India team in 2006 to increase awareness about the sport in India and abroad. He travels regularly with his team to perform for international companies and organisations, and also does television shows. “I’m deeply involved in my discipline and its future.”
Bazzar’s incorporation of a native act demonstrates its seriousness in tapping the Indian market. The shows, which will run daily, apart from specific days in between and already nearly sold out; to give you a brief idea, that’s close to 1,500 viewers per show, over a period of about seven weeks. This hype has boosted Cirque’s confidence in its growth and popularity in India.
“We offer a highly emotional and compelling form of entertainment,” says show director Susan Gaudreau, who choreographed Kurios by Cirque du Soleil. “Our shows take the traditional circus arts to a whole new level, mixing state-of-the-art costumes, captivating music and impressive staging, which give a complete and impressive theatrical experience. Bazzar is a show created to introduce the brand to audiences who are not familiar with us. It features classic acrobatic disciplines, plus, we offer the Indian audience the chance to live the genuine little Big Top experience.”
Apart from acts featuring teeterboard, portage, acrobatic bikes, contortions, duo roller skating, duo trapeze, aerial rope and slackline, audiences will also enjoy fire-breathing and stilt-walking – a nod to the origins of the company as well as traditional circus themes. Vibrant colours, exhilarating music and evoking the madness and beauty of a classic bazaar are scattered throughout the teaser.
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“In a place where the unexpected is expected, the colourful group imagines, builds and invents vibrant scenes in an artistic and acrobatic game,” says Gaudreau. “Bazzar is colourful and rich with fun characters who invite the audience into their world. I was inspired to create a show that paid homage to the roots of Cirque. I took into consideration the beginnings of where this group of street performers began and aimed to add key elements of their original performance skills. For instance, [Cirque co-founder] Guy Laliberte was a fire-breather and I have a fire performer in the show. What I was trying to recreate was a sense of a core troupe who get together and create.”
Characters include the Maestro, the Floating Woman, the Grand Ame and the Mini Maestro, accompanied by a troupe of fabulously talented artists. “We pushed their individuality and raw performance itself – strength, flexibility, whatever makes them amazing – to the forefront,” says creative director Marie-Helene Delage. This also includes live music and an original score, a frenzied combination of varied genres, particularly Indian rhythms, with percussions, electronica, folk and pop. So, the saxophone melds with the ukulele, piano with flutes and acoustic guitar with the banjo.
Gaudreau, however, is most excited about the duo mallakhamb act, which is a first for the Canadian entertainment company. “We created an incredible fusion of mallakhamb and dance in a strong performance set to an original musical score,” she says. “It is a celebration of the art form, an incredible fusion with dance showing a strong spiritual vision of mallakhamb.”
“I’m also looking forward to seeing the audience leave feeling as though they just witnessed the behind-the-scenes of a Cirque du Soleil show, as if they were a member of the eclectic troupe that put together the show; the energy and invigorating feeling the creative process can leave me with,” Gaudreau says.
Bazzar is scheduled to visit more than 400 cities. Its India run ends in New Delhi on January 6