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Bridging silences

Astad Deboo, the big man of Indian contemporary dance, explores the special world of the hearing impaired in his new production

Dancer Astad Deboo doesn't stick to any norm. — Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

ASTAD DEBOO is a name synonymous with Indian contemporary dance today. For over four decades, he has demonstrated both onstage and off it that he celebrates breaking away from the norm — both as a dancer and as an individual.

Local angle

What brought Astad to Bangalore last week? He was checking out the commissioned music by brilliant local composer Amit Heri for his hour-long choreography, titled Contraposition. That's a navarasa-based work Astad has created with dancers from Chennai's Clarke School for the Deaf. "It's exciting because it's only the second time I've been able to commission a composer to do an original score, primarily because the seed money for the production has come from the Royal Netherlands Embassy," explains Astad. "Amit and I have been putting our heads together. Now, perhaps the main framework is ready. Amit will be playing live for us while we travel with the show."

Wonderful experience

What has the creative exchange meant to Amit? "At an artistic level, it's been a wonderful experience," he says. "Though I haven't watched these dancers at work, when I compose Astad usually dances it out for me, so that I get a feel of it." The production, slated to premier in Chennai in December, then tour Bangalore, New Delhi and Mumbai, will be part of the inauguration at the International Deaf Olympics in Melbourne in January 2005. Then, it's on to Kuala Lumpur before they return home.

Over the past 16 years, Astad has worked with the hearing impaired Action Players in Kolkata and Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., the world's largest university for the deaf.

He recalls: "The Kolkata group decided they needed a break after our 14-year-long honeymoon. Karthika, one of the trained Bharatanatyam dancers from Clarke, had been to the Gallaudet festival in 2002. So, about 18 months ago, I got the trained students at Clarke going in my style of work. Since I have a certain standard of excellence that I want the performers to project, the boys were left way behind. Only the girls and I are in it now." Since September, the choreography has been geared to the eventual December performance.

Astad mulls over the challenges of working with the hearing impaired. "Initially, I had to get them to count in groups of eight," he recounts. "Synchronisation was a problem too, because each person had a different way of counting. But the Clarke schoolgirls, who are between 18 and 20, already have a dance vocabulary. I'm trying to get them to emote more, even try my gestures beyond the traditional mudras and abhinaya. I'd like them to feel the joy of dancing, beyond staccato steps."

Why is Contraposition based on the navarasas? "We're dealing with emotions every day," explains Astad, his eyes and hands in constant motion. "Though the Clarke dancers could do their jathiswaram and tillana, there was no emotion coming through. I felt that was the challenge for me. There's no story line to it. You're just expressing that particular emotion — joy or sadness — and Amit's music is helping to extend that. Since the dancers can't hear the music, I had to explain the nuances through gesture, keeping in mind their vocabulary... Some of them have performed with me in Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. But these were corporate shows, never public performances."

He stresses with a smile: "You know, these dancers — or divas? — become the role models in their own community. Their confidence could inspire others."

Astad, who's slated to work with an installation artist around the U-bahn underground transit system and with a school for the hearing impaired in Munich in early 2005, explains what it means to get Contraposition on the road: "Right now, I'm wearing various hats, from fundraiser to artistic director to travel manager to administrator. After all, I want the best for my baby."

Special world

How does Astad feel about his foray into the special world? Perhaps an excerpt from a prepared vote of thanks best sums up his stance: "Years of conditioning made me unthinkingly treat them with kid gloves. But somewhere within me the professional dancer's instinct prevailed. I wanted them to be as good as anyone else. They responded like true artistes, emerging winners at the end. This taught me an important lesson. What was wanted was not condescension, nor pity, nor charity. All it took was recognition of their real worth, their real desire — to be given legitimate space along with their peers in mainstream society."


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