Astad Deboo on a lifetime of choreographing.

When Astad Deboo saunters down a Mumbai sidewalk, he looks every inch the intrepid traveller. As a young student, he left India on a cargo boat in 1969; his travels etch out, in equal parts, a narrative of geography and an education in dance. These myriad influences find resonance in his works. In recent years, Deboo has mentored groups of hearing-impaired youth and street children, creating new choreographies with them. Speaking on the heels of the premiere of his latest work, Interpreting Tagore, he talks about his travels and the great choreographers who crossed his path. His latest work, Interpreting Tagore, is somewhat semi-autobiographical, seeking to reflect the crystallisation of his choreographic journey.

Excerpts from an interview

On his travels

On leaving India, and travelling with sheep, goats and cattle, I intended to reach the USA. However, my first port of call was Iran, where I also gave my first performance, entirely by accident. It was for an Iranian television programme; it was very Kathak-based for I only had a little modern dance training with Uttara Asha Coorlawala at that point.

At the London School of Contemporary Dance, I learnt the Graham technique in exchange for teaching Kathak, because I could not afford the fees. In ten weeks, I knew that the Graham technique, which I had expected to continue studying once I reached the United States, was not for me. You started discovering your body in its totality; with Martha Graham, it was more about contraction; for me, dance has always meant a flow.

I visited 32 countries in eight years. The easiest way to make connections was to go to the university and the students’ union and offer them a show of my dance. I would try to connect with local dancers and see what their work was all about. Being on a tourist visa, I’d have to keep extending it or move on to another country.

Three years into my travels, on returning to India, Sunil Kothari saw me dance and suggested I study Kathakali. I was fortunate to have Guru E Krishna Panikker in Bombay. I trained shortly with him and left again. When I went to Indonesia I was very fascinated by the Javanese style. On finally reaching the US by this circuitous route, I took classes with an African-American dancer, Nontsizi Cayou. This was after four years of seeing, observing and experimenting, bringing a bit of Kathakali into my work, especially the abhinaya. In New York, I took classes in the Limon technique for a short time. I then studied for five years with E. Krishna Panicker, going to Guruvayur every year and spending my summers in Kerala.

On working with Maia Plisetskaya and Pina Bausch

Pierre Cardin, who saw me dance in Paris, was paying homage to Maia Plisetskaya and commissioned a work from me. She was past sixty then; having seen her play a dying swan, I decided to choreograph a piece where I would be able to use her arms. She had a different vision of an Indian choreographer teaching her a piece – hers was a Hollywood fantasy of wearing harem pants. I wanted her to dance barefoot but she refused; she wanted to dance en pointe. I made her wear a chiffon jumpsuit in earthy tones, with sequins studding it; the fabric made ripples and the sequins caught the light as she turned.

Spending a year with Pina Bausch spurred my personal growth, though we had our differences. When she choreographed, she would share her thoughts and dancers were expected to make movements that expressed those thoughts – for instance, if you went to the beach and saw the water, how would you react? She saw me dance Kathakali and made me a part of the company. Initially, I was evolving movements using Kathakali but then I began to look for other ways to move too. Pina didn’t agree with that and wanted me to continue doing all the ‘Indian stuff’. Eventually, she lost interest in me as a dancer, but let me stay on and observe.

On mentoring

I was keen to share my work but I was always shunned. Nobody really wanted to give me a platform. Classical dancers might come to watch my work, but would not interact with me for fear of their gurus. I had been teaching at Gallaudet University, the largest university of the deaf, in Washington D.C. It was through my work there that I came to be associated with the Clarke School for the Deaf. Working with them differed from my earlier engagement with the Action Players in Kolkata because the Clarke girls had been trained in Bharatanatyam. We did seventy-five shows, going to small towns like Tumkur and the Deaf Olympics in Melbourne. After some years, when I went back to the corporates for more funding to work with the deaf, they refused and said – we’re into street children now. That is how the Salaam Baalak Trust kids came into my life.

On the puppets in Interpreting Tagore

The puppets manipulated by the street kids in Interpreting Tagore come from vivid images of the pujos I attended growing up, in Calcutta and Jamshedpur. Also, some of the Salaam Baalak children have worked with Dadi Pudumjee, the puppeteer, in the past, so I thought it would be interesting to include the puppets. Because they are so huge and somewhat distracting – these were conversations we had during the creative process, I am not sure if I’ll always be able to work in conditions that allow their presence, but they are intrinsic to the work when one views it in totality.