Astad Deboo, pioneer of new moves

Astad Deboo was honoured with the Living Legend award by Sri Krishna Gana Sabha recently in Chennai

Updated - July 05, 2018 05:45 pm IST

Published - July 05, 2018 03:26 pm IST

 Astad Deboo performing at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in Chennai

Astad Deboo performing at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in Chennai

Celebrated contemporary dancer-choreographer Astad Deboo was honoured with the ‘Living Legend’ Award by Sri Krishna Gana Sabha last Sunday. The artiste was reflective during his acceptance speech.

He said, “Being a professional classical dancer in India is hard. All of us know that. But being a contemporary dancer based upon one’s classical training is harder. Sometimes one is tempted to feel pessimistic about the future, as I sometimes felt. Made even worse… is the lack of understanding I have sometimes encountered even among my peers...”

He ended with an emotional appeal, “Is it an impossibility to imagine a future in which the two kinds of dance, the traditional with its broad, well-established systems and the contemporary, still in the process of finding its way, could sustain and nurture one another in creating its own expanding, developing universe? I don’t think so, for through this, the ultimate victor will be dance itself.”

Astad thanked the late Yagnaraman, erstwhile secretary of Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, and veteran Bharatanatyam dancer Lakshmi Viswananthan for inviting him for the Natya Kala Conference in 1983-84, his first performance in the city. “My work is now well recognised in India but contemporary dance still receives step-motherly treatment. And it is with this in mind that I must point out that what the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha has done today, in giving me this award, is nothing short of absolutely remarkable.” While felicitating the septuagenarian dancer, renowned dance critic and author Leela Venkataraman spoke of the first time she saw Astad in a nail-biting ‘Broken Pane’, where as a drug addict in search of a fix he goes through the gaps between the steps of a ladder; she wondered about the dictum of contemporary dance, until she came across Susanne Linke, contemporary dancer-choreographer’s quote, ‘Living on the edge, that is contemporary dance!’ Leela also spoke of Astad’s wide-ranging subjects, such as death (‘Thanathamorphia’), his work with puppeteer Dadi Pudumjee, with Dhrupad music and the Gundecha Brothers, etc., all of which he presents with a sensibility that is Indian, and in a language of his own.

Over the last decade or more we have been privileged to see Astad Deboo every now and then in Chennai. We know that he is the pioneer of contemporary dance in India, that he trained in Kathak, Contemporary dance and Kathakali in that order, that body conditioning is at the core of his demanding choreographies, that his style is unique, that his work is introverted and stark with no frills.

What we did not know was that he was not always this intense, that he has a playful, stylish side to him. ‘Dance Expression’, staged that evening, was quite a revelation. One could see the journey, although in retrospect, through the three older choreographies — ‘Aahavan’, ‘Stepping Out’ and ‘Every Fragment of Dust is Awakened’. Choreographed in the 1990s and early 2000s, they were closer to his Indian roots, using mime, grace and musicality in movements.

‘Aahavan’ was an invocation to space and the body, set to a slow, meditative dhrupad alap (Amelia Cuni) to the background of soft underwater gurgles. This is typical of him — to calm the constituents. Astad’s staging is quiet. There is no entertainment value for the audience, you need to engage with him at his level of concentration.

‘Aahavan’ was tranquil with small, deliberate movements . Sustaining the pause and the slowness are the challenges, where a movement, be it of a major or minor limb is imperceptible. Without losing the abstraction, Astad was able to convey gratitude, with just one expression and a stretching out of the arms. He said later, “I have always felt that my work should communicate. But I leave the interpretation quite open. No spoon feeding.”

Rich serving

‘Stepping Out’ turned our perceptions on its head. It was richer in many ways — the dramatic entry where you see an arm first and then a leg before you see him, the full-bodied saxophone music (Gert Anklam), dramatic lighting (Victor Paulraj) and a lighter choreography.

Astad Deboo miming a flirting sequence between a man and a woman? And dancing freestyle to music, smiling, enjoying himself? Not many may have seen that side of him; he could put a hip-hop dancer to shame. You realise that dance is in every pore of him, in the disciplined moments and, perhaps more so, in the lighter ones.

The last piece, ‘Every fragment…’ inspired by Rabindranath Tagore’s work with haunting music by Yoichiro Yoshikawa, had a spiritual leaning. He used symbolism in the context of plucking flowers and making a garland but the path to awakening was made in twirls; I counted 112 and Lalitha Venkat,, 131. Physically it was certainly a feat, but the path also had an emotional overtone as it went through moments of happiness, seeking, pleading, praying, confusion and finally peace. Vintage Astad was a treat.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.