When the established worlds of Bollywood film and cabaret entertainment collide, the result is Indian Summer. Curated and hosted by comedian Anil Desai, the Indian-themed variety show’s all-engulfing torrent of sinuous moves and tongue-in-cheek exoticism challenges the modesty of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Christians alike.
Its ever-changing bill includes a range of international performers, like dance troupe Bollywood Vibes. The belles’ numbers alternate graceful and dainty traditional Indian moves with more Western choreographies performed to floor-stomping dance beats, establishing a contrast between India’s old-school exotic demureness and the aggressive sensuality of its current mass culture.
With strict customs stretching back through millennia, dance is central to Indian eroticism. “They use dance in lieu of sex and kissing,” says cabaret singer Tricity Vogue, who contributes a number from her excellent show The Blue Lady Sings where her character assumes the guise of Krishna. “Western realism strikes Indians as superficial. Sensuality in Indian film and culture tries to convey the internal experience of lovemaking. It’s seduction through suggestion and metaphor.”
Vogue plays her Krishna routine to the sound of Choli Ke Peeche, a hit song from the film Khal Nayak (1993) that aroused instant controversy upon release due to the erotic double entendres of its lyrics (“What’s behind the blouse?/What’s under the veil?/Behind the blouse is my heart/This heart I’ll give to my beloved”). Poking fun at the polemics, Vogue has Krishna strip off his blouse to reveal a burning heart plucked straight from paintings of the Virgin Mary, after enlisting the help of two viewers to add a few limbs to her divine representation.
Audience participation is an important staple of the show’s concept. “The Indian movie theatre experience is all about engagement,” says Desai. “You get crowds of five, six hundred people screaming from the balconies, shouting at the villain, cheering for the hero, crying in romantic scenes.” Billed as a show to ‘awaken the senses’, Indian Summer engages its viewers from every angle, relying on incense aromas and ubiquitous lively music as much as on The Brickhouse’s menu, which features Indian delicacies ranging from chilled rose water to honeycomb ice cream.
The show’s shifting format is set to greatly expand its multi-sensory indulgence: henna tattoos and Indian head massages will soon complement the eclectic bill, to which Anil intends to add snake charmers, fakirs with beds of nails, hot coal walkers and other sorts of traditional Indian street performance.
Which is not to say that Indian Summer is a showcase of traditional Indian art. Acrobat Jackie Le, for instance, performs aerial stunts with a silk robe, while belly-dancer Lana Lovitt enters the stage dressed like Chaplin’s Tramp (later removing the iconic derby hat to reveal a red fez). Lady Ane Angel’s act combines snake charming and fire-eating for a circus feel. The Bollywood theme manifests itself more as an inspiration, prompting highly individual readings that yield more variety than unity.
Humour and satire are strong staples of the show’s concept. Desai himself performs in two distinct modes: with his trademark celebrity impersonations and as the character Rajesh, a former Bollywood child prodigy channeling his past glories into a tacky second-rate lounge act. Hosting the evening, Rajesh is often joined by Sajeela Kershi (of comedy duo Asian Provocateurs), who cracks up the crowds with racy jokes about latex burkas and other thin-ice taboo banter.
Will Indian Summer remain a work in progress, ever shifting and adapting? Probably not. Desai concedes that he intends to welcome new performers into the fold as he learns of different performatic re-readings of the Bollywood canon (like movie mimic Vijay or Bollywood burlesque dancer Princess Angelique, temporarily unavailable due to pressing family matters). But other than that, the show will eventually settle on a finished format, allowing it to travel internationally. Which makes this early run a rare opportunity to witness the development of a bold project with a fresh approach to established genres, presented by an array of performers as impressive as the myriad attractions they share the stage with.
Indian Summer. Directed by Anil Desai. The Brickhouse, London. September 8-October 2, 8 PM. £10. www.thebrickhouse.co.uk
Photo credits: Elisabeth McCord (Tricity Vogue), others courtesy of the performers