Mahesh Vinayakram, son of the well-known ghatam master Vikku Vinayakram, will be the first Indian to perform in a Cirque du Soleil show, Luzia, coming to the Bay Area in November. “I am happy and proud to say that I am the first Indian male singer from the entire Carnatic music fraternity to ever be cast by Cirque du Soleil.”
The creators of the show wanted to add a spiritual element to an act that has a contortionist depict Alebrijes, a creature from Mexican mythology, which scares the nightmares away, as it is scarier than them. “My accentuations lead the reactions of the audience as they see him contort in positions we didn’t know could even be possible,” describes Vinayakram.
Vinayakram is not unfamiliar with contortions himself, musically speaking. He has worked with several styles and genres of music/ musicians, such as beatboxing, Bulgarian choirs, African percussionists, and Reggae. A riveting You Tube video shows him jamming with Dub Fx, a street performer and studio recording artist out of Melbourne, Australia. His Joy with Georg Gratzer and Klemens Bittmann is an exihilarating homage to the band Shakti, made famous by his father and Ustad Zakir Hussain, among others.
Cirque du Soleil is a performance act like no other. The new show Luzia was inspired by the natural beauty, modernity, surrealism, and mythology of Mexico. Composer Simon Carpentier said in an interview that he wanted to, at the point in the show where the Carnatic music is introduced, to creatively destabilize whatever has been constructed in the storyboard up until then. Vinayakram was chosen to render this creatively disruptive force, and the raaga he has chosen is Keeravani.
India Currents caught up with the musician to understand how it all came to be, as well as get to know the man behind the musician.
IC: How did it all come about?
MV: I was traveling with a big group Charishnu with the Kalakshetra director Leela Samson who asked me whether I was ready to go for a session with Cirque du Soleil. I said ok and did a 10-minute presentation of singing, Konnakol (vocal percussion), morsing (Jews harp), kanjira (tambourine). I didn’t hear from them afterwards. But apparently they were following my journey on Facebook and four years later, to my complete surprise, I get a message from Andre Faleiros (circus talent scout) asking if I would be interested to join in their new production. They flew me to Burlington for a final recording/audition in December 2015. I was in Montreal joining the creation process of Luzia 45 days later!
IC: Luzia is performance art-how do you feel about singing for it?
MV: Luzia is a bit like musical theatre. There is stage acting, acrobats, live music…It’s a dream-come-true to take part in a show like this! It gives me wider scope to exhibit Carnatic music, especially to a worldwide audience that would never have heard it before.
IC: How have you been preparing for Luzia?
MV: Indian classical music needs a lot of quality time of practice of melody and rhythm control, Every student has to do it for years. For Luzia, I had to learn western music chords and scale system, for example, we don’t attempt singing falsetto in Indian classical, but after coming to Luzia, I have been trying “head voice.”
IC: Who have been your role models?
MV: Obviously my dad, he is a simple human being yet powerful, he has conquered the entire world with his small instrument!
IC: Growing up with a living legend, your father-was it tough?
MV: Yes kind of… because expectations are high. That I had to match them, made me always conscious about quality …I have been travelling and sharing the stage with my father for more than 15 years now.
IC: What is your earliest memory of watching your father perform?
MV: Watching Shakti band in Madras IIT when I was in school in the 90s … I still can’t forget how my father enthralled an audience of 2,000 people in open air theatre…it had a memorable impact on me not only as a listener, but it also sparked an ambition in me to achieve big.
IC: What is your philosophy as a teacher?
MV: Being human and staying with values of life/ enjoying the moment. Yesterday is history, tomorrow is mystery, today is a gift… I follow this principle.
IC: What next, as a personal goal/ aspiration?
MV: I would like to sing with a philharmonic orchestra featuring Carnatic music. I want Carnatic music to be taken to all kinds of possibilities, I am working on a mission to break the barriers. I want to be the bridge between musical cultures and like the many masters from India who have been an inspiration, I want to give respect to my India. I want to spread harmony using music. n
San Francisco, Nov. 17 2016-Jan. 29 2017; San Jose Feb 9-Mar 19, 2017. Taylor Street Bridge, E Lot, 176 Asbury St., San Jose. Tickets start at $49.