The irony of being a celebrated artiste yet struggling for funding is not lost on Astad Deboo
How poignantly Sadat Hasan Manto captured the madness that was taken for sense at Partition in his famous short story Toba Tek Singh. Unfortunately, society’s topsy-turvy penchant is still going strong.
We still live in a country of dichotomies. Not least among these is the irony that often, those who spend their lives in training, practice and discipline of various genres of dance are assessed by those who know nothing about the art. As a result, financial support for art is dependent on the whims of such non-aesthetes!
No wonder a celebrated dancer like Astad Deboo speaks of having to search for platforms despite over four decades in the profession. If he finds himself answering the tactless questions of “young marketing geeks” of the corporate world who quiz him about numbers and mileage and try to get the best deal for the money they might invest in his productions, he has also recently declined an invitation to perform at the prestigious Khajuraho Dance Festival because of the “ridiculous kind of money they offer.” He adds, “The sad part is, dancers accept it.”
On why his predicament remains so despite his being a recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and the Padma Shri and an acknowledged pioneer of Contemporary Dance in India, Deboo says, “I’m at a loss myself.”
Audiences consistently appreciate his work and fill the auditoriums wherever he performs. “People say you’re honoured, you’re celebrated, but what is the use,” he asks. “As one dancer told me, ‘Astad you always manage.’ I said yes, I always manage, but at what cost? The way the system is, a dancer has to have nerves of steel — which I have.”
That, he explains, has been his journey, and he is “not feeling sorry for it.” He takes pride in knowing that “nobody can point a finger and say, ‘He’s there because so-and-so helped him’.”
Deboo invoked Toba Tek Singh on the first day of 2013 when he performed his new solo work based on the short story in New Delhi. Later, in mid-February, the Mumbai-based veteran was back in the Capital to perform “Interpreting Tagore” with the young artistes of Salaam Baalak Trust who are part of his dance company.
It would seem interpreting a starkly realist writer like Manto through dance would be more of a challenge than the lyrical Tagore. “I’m trained in Kathakali, so abhinaya is very integral to my work,” says Deboo. For Toba Tek Singh, he also used a recording. “The soundtrack helped me in conveying the dilemma of Toba Tek Singh. So it wasn’t very difficult to create Toba Tek Singh, compared to what I am doing with the boys.”
As for “the boys,” whom he has been mentoring for about five years now, they have earned the trust of this admittedly hard taskmaster. But, “it’s difficult to get platforms,” he remarks. “So I have to produce it myself.” However, he avers, “The work will continue.”
The maestro is candid in his valuation, whether of the work with Salaam Baalak boys or the youngsters with hearing impairment whom he has trained in the past or any of the companies for which he has choreographed. “I have used myself as a catalyst (not only) in showcasing their talent, but also my creativity,” he says. “Because one needs to perform.”
Their faith and enthusiasm inspire and motivate him, adds the choreographer who has not forgotten that in his early years when he wanted to work with classical dancers, they would not, since he had not yet made a name for himself.
Telling his wards they should be role models for their peers, he says he is not averse to their passing on the skills they learn from him to others. He says he takes it as a “compliment” and “it’s to be shared.”
Soon “Interpreting Tagore” will be shared with a much larger group. “We’ve just been confirmed to go to the festival of Cervantino in Mexico,” he states. Hoping to get invitations for appearances in the United States alongside, the lone warrior will soon be off on a promotional tour.