INTERVIEW The irony of being a celebrated artiste yet struggling for funding is not lost on Astad Deboo
We live in a country of ironies. Those who spend their lives training and practising various genres of dance are assessed by those who know nothing about the art. No wonder a celebrated dancer such as Astad Deboo speaks of having to search for platforms despite over four decades in the field. He finds himself answering the tactless questions of “young marketing geeks” who try to get the ‘best deal’ for his productions. But he also recently got to decline an invitation to perform at the Khajuraho Dance Festival because of the “ridiculous kind of money they offer”. “The sad part is, dancers accept it,” he says.
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?’ For 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”.
On the first day of 2013, Deboo performed his new solo work in New Delhi, based on Sadat Hasan Manto’s short story Toba Tek Singh . 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 such as 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 convey 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” 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.”
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.
He is not averse to their passing on the skills they learn from him to others. He says he takes it as a “compliment”. Soon Interpreting Tagore will be shared with a much larger group. “We’ll be going to the festival of Cervantino in Mexico,” he states. Hoping to get invitations for appearances in the U.S. alongside, the lone warrior will soon be off on a promotional tour.