Indian contemporary choreographer Astad Deboo tells Saimi Sattar how his travels across the world have shaped his unique artform
He is busy on the phone as he sits at the Triveni Terrace Café in the heart of the capital. Dressed in a blue ripped jeans, a striped shirt with a black shawl casually draped across his shoulders, contemporary dancer AstadDeboo wears his hair in a buzz cut. The air that he exudes belies the years that he has clocked having been born in the same year as our country. During the conversation, his eyes light up often and his hands move in tandem with his words. His brain is agile. He meanders frequently from the question to expound a point but comes back to where he has begun having explained it by way of examples. The contemporary dance maestro has pushed boundaries in pursuance of his art where he continues to experiment.
You were born in the same year as India. How have you seen it change?
Yes, 1947. But when I came back to India to introduce a new dance form, there was a lot of resentment in government cultural institutions, Ministry of Culture and even from classical gurus. Not that people themselves weren’t receptive to my experimental workshops, they were afraid that their gurus would get upset. It was my determination and perseverance that kept me going and I am grateful to the media as they spoke about my work.
Still the peer criticism was all around. A very established dancer once said that even when you stage one show in a year, people talk about it but they don’t talk about the 30 to 40 shows we do in a year. But the reason was due to the kind of work they did and the dance form that they practiced. Though I have studied kathakand kathakali, I do not take an entire tukdafrom the Indian classical style in my work. I just use the technique. While often what they were doing was yet another interpretation of Krishna or Shiva.
In the beginning, the audience was limited to writers or musicians. Slowly, word got around. The best form of publicity is word-of-mouth. Everybody went happy while I stuck to my guns. In those early days, I spent six months here and six overseas.
Earlier I was a solo dancer and very energetic. But now I do slower movements and it is more difficult to be in sync with the music than when the movement is faster.
What kept you going despite the fact that the institutions and the established artistes were not accepting?
Those days, it was hard and frustrating to be accepted as a liberal artiste but I had the support and blessings of my parents. I could come back to a happy home and that was a big blessing. Even today, many boys find it hard to rationalise their choice as performers. My father, on the other hand, said, “I am sorry we do not have enough connections to help you out” Had it been an unhappy home, I would not have been able to handle the rejections which I faced constantly.
How do collaborations further your journey?
A collaboration needs to blend. There needs to be some amount of respect and understanding between the collaborating partners. We should be on the same plane. When you are working, you want the working environment to be stress free. Otherwise one is not able to create.When I collaborate with somebody, there is a sparkand I am able to do things which I have never tried before. Because you need someone to trigger that change or extend that boundary. I worked with BahauddinDagarwho is a great artist. We were discussing something and he said, “Your performance.” And I immediately pointed out, “It is not my show but ours. You are not accompanying me. We are working together to create something good.”
How difficult was it to perfect the Jose Limon technique and the way it seems to defy gravity? , How difficult was it to perfect, especially when you are using it in conjunction with Martha Graham technique?
I took these classes when I was already 24. When you are young, your body is supple. I imbibed only those things which my body could accept. So I cannot claim perfection in these dance forms. But yes, all that experience of how these school’s practitioners worked with their bodies and their breath control influenced me deeply. This was a whole new teaching process. I studied many dance forms and ended up using a lot of Balinese movements in my work.People also see the influence of Japanese butoh dance in my work. All this experience has enriched me as an individual.
Mukhabhinay is an important part of your dance technique and that is something which is clearly Indian in origin…
Mukhabhinay is something that is ingrained in me. Don’t forget that I learnt kathak and kathakalifor 16 years so it comes naturally. I use it a lot but not all the time.
You hitchhiked to the US. What made you do that? How have your travels contributed to your art?
I had studied Indian classical dance, beginning withkathak. And then my father put the brakes on my lessons. But he had let a boy, and that too a Parsione,take dancing lessons in the first place. Destiny called again when I watched an American dance company perform in the city. A new dimension opened up where dancers performed as a collective using a defined space. Nothing like that existed in India and my father didn’t have the means to invest in my passion.
But I was fired by a spirit of adventure and just set off. I left the country in 1969 on a cargo ship with goats, sheep and other workers who would get off at Dubai or Bahrain. Eventually the voyage ended at Khorramshahr in Iran. I hitchhiked across Europe but it was possible at that time because it was a part of the youth culture then. Nobody thought anything about travelling with strangers. I also travelled to Canada and Japan.
Monuments and places that I had just read about came alive during that time. I travelled the world and explored different cultures for seven and a half years instead. I just hitchhiked, studied, absorbed and learnt. I went to Australia and New Zealand on a cheap budget. These travels have ensured that I look at each day as a gift where I meet more people. I stayed in a youth hostel picking up tips to survive.
A friend’s daughter recently told me that she was so much in awe of my experience. But now many young people are doing it though in a much different form. It is more hiking rather than hitchhiking.
Is that why you connect to young people from varied backgrounds? You’ve also worked with hearing-impaired children and those from the Salaam Baalak Trust...
I worked with children of Salaam Baalak Trust and the drummers of Manipur. And here I can point out a difference. When travelling on shows, the Manipur dancers wait for me to take them out while the ones from the trust are survivors and they have the instinct to explore.
I have worked with the deaf after I came across a friend who was working with a deaf theatre company in Kolkata. I was not trained to work with them but learnt on the job. After a three-week workshop, it was possible to create an entire experience with them able to express themselves. I learnt so much from them like lip-reading and sign language. I use myself as a catalyst and then mentor and nurture them. They became confident and were role models.
Earlier the ones from the trust performed on Bollywood songs and were applauded. After working with me they got recognition as people came up to speak with them and applauded them. They were excited because there was a sense of achievement as they saw their photos in the newspapers as well. I am not doing this for my glorification but rather to demonstrate what can be done with hard work and perseverance.
What keeps you young? While dancers half your age follow the set patterns, you keep extending your boundaries?
(Guffaws)I still, by God’s grace can dance at my age and the response which one gets from the public is an incentive. And I personally feel that I still can so why should I stop? I keep pushing myself physically and creatively. I have been working for 14 years in Manipur. Earlier, it was with the martial artists and now it is with the drummers. The performance that is put up now is all very organic while keeping their tradition intact. I do feel tradition is very important and it gives you grounding. When you have a strong foundation, then you can grow and are open to absorbing and looking at things with an eye that is impartial. Lekinchahathonichahiye(But you should have the desire). Otherwise you are wasting your time and also that of the person who wants you to be a part of the project.
Your choice of venues have been eclectic to say the least, for instance, The Great Wall of China, amid artefacts in a museum and more...
People are used to watching a performance in a theatre. But when I select a space, it has to speak to me. For example, at Triveni I will have people sitting on the stage while the performance takes place on the steps. But some performances work better in an enclosed environment.
With the advent of digital, how do you see performing arts changing?
Overseas there is a lot of audio visual work happening in production. But I feel when you come to see a performance, you want to do just that.
How much of practice did it take to mould yourself like dough during Chewing Gum?
I am very impressed that you've done your homework. A lot of time people come to me and say. batayeaapkyakarrahenhain(What are you doing)?
It was a stretch fabric that I used. It was a small box and I sat inside it. The way children chew gum and take it out, that is the way it was performed. It was a short interlude. People still ask me if I do it.
Can artists afford to be political especially through their work?
Yes. The four quotes of Mahatma Gandhi that I have used for my present work reflect it. When I started, the protests against CAA had not picked up but now they are so much more relevant.
The first quote is, "It is very easy to be a part of the crowd. It takes courage to stand alone.” And that is what citizens have done, the way they have rallied together.
The second one is, "I have been very disappointed with educated people and how they have reacted.” While Mahatma Gandhi was talking about how educated people did not shun khadi,today it is a reference to people who are saying “I am pro CAA” which is disappointing. When I attended protest rallies or put up a status on Facebook, someone told me that “I wouldn’t be affected so I should not react.” But I am lookingat the larger picture. Earlier all of us lived, worked, spoke and stood up for each other. Why not, now?
(The premier show of Unbroken Unbowed takes place today at Chinmaya Auditorium)
Photo: Pankaj Kumar