Astad Deboo, the creative traveller

Veteran contemporary dance exponent Astad Deboo

Veteran contemporary dance exponent Astad Deboo  

Astad Deboo, who performed in Chennai recently, straddles many worlds and genres to constantly add to his unconventional dance repertoire

“Pioneers have to always suffer…” said the Government official to Astad Deboo. “Aap ko recognition marne ke baad milega (you will get your recognition after you die.)”

Astad chuckles as he recalls this episode. “I wanted to call him when I got my Sangeet Natak Academy award for contemporary dance in 1995 and the Padma Shri in 2007. Well I am still alive!”

On another occasion after watching Deboo’s choreography on Bolero, a gentleman told him with pride, “I have seen Bolero danced by Maya Plisetskaya”. Not very much later, Deboo was in Paris choreographing for the celebrated Russian Ballerina Maya Plisetskaya at the invitation of Pierre Cardin. “I did not write to the gentleman, but did think about him while I was giving her instructions,” says the veteran.

Such anecdotes peppered Astad Deboo’s conversation with Sadanand Menon and Padmini Chettur at the Goethe Institute, marking his 50th year as a contemporary dancer. He spoke about his journey as an artiste, breaking boundaries and creating his own space in the contemporary dance scene.

This midnight’s child (born in 1947) did not have it easy as a dancer. As a young boy growing up in Jamshedpur, he was sent for Kathak training along with his sisters. He enjoyed being a Kathak dancer but around the time he was finishing his degree in commerce and economics in Mumbai, in 1969, he took a decision to hitchhike to the United States. He first got on to a cargo ship to the Port of Khorramshahr in Iran. He had goats for company and remembers enjoying the journey and admiring the mountains of Oman. He hitchhiked through Iran, Turkey, Greece, Austria, Germany and Switzerland.

Small performances came by chance here and there. He gave Kathak classes in exchange for studying Martha Graham style of dance at The Place in London. He began to travel again taking cheap charter flights and boats, conducted classes in exchange for learning different kinds of dance, like Afro jazz, as well as cash, and managed to travel across Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, Vietnam (during the war, which was a real eye-opener), Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, South America. In Japan, he also taught English and became a fashion model.

At the carnival in Rio de Janeiro, he met a Russian ballet teacher who invited him to teach a few classes, and subsequently, met a lady who was fascinated by his work and invited him to stay with her; she turned out to be the daughter of a former president of Brazil. In Buenos Aires, a friend had put him in touch with someone who also turned out to be a former Argentinian president’s daughter. These relationships also helped him later, as he started getting invited to perform in different countries.

During the conversation Padmini Chettur mentioned the watershed event in the history of contemporary dance that the Goethe Institute, Mumbai, had organised in 1984. She was present there, as well as at another turning point in the contemporary dance history, a coming together of dance practitioners at London in 1993.

He was somehow kept in the margins with the divas of Indian contemporary dance with their fantastic articulation of their ideas but Astad Deboo was undaunted.

He has worked with the likes of Pina Bausch and many other great artistes of our times. He has worked with Dhrupad exponents Gundecha brothers, who worked with Chandralekha later.

“Collaborations with artistes from other disciplines have been gratifying,” says Deboo. Puppetry with Dadi Pudumjee, Manipuri martial art Thang Ta and Manipuri folk dance Pung Cholam have given different layers to his work. He was keen to choreograph with different vocabularies without imposing on the fundamentals of those forms.

Questions that Sadanand Menon asked about political statements in the forms and the narrative nature of his style were answered through clippings that were shown during the discussion. The clippings were from ‘An Evening with Astad’, a conversation with Rani Nair, a choreographer in Sweden. “She asked me questions that I had never encountered earlier,” says Deboo.

A collaboration with a school for the hearing impaired posed a different kind of challenge for Astad Deboo, but he found the artistes extremely receptive and grasping everything quickly and easily.

With the Clarke School for the Deaf in Chennai, he has done over 70 shows, including opening the Deaflympics in Melbourne, shows in Granada, Singapore and at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Delhi.

Well-known theatre director and filmmaker Sunil Shanbhag has made a documentary on Deboo that conveys his understanding of the artiste’s intention. The clippings convey a vibrant understanding of the intention of the artist and his intense articulation in rhythm.

Astad Deboo, the creative traveller

Staging ‘Liminal’

Astad Deboo’s performance ‘Liminal: Below the edge’ at the Goethe Institute, Chennai, dealt with the turmoil, unrest and uncertainty being experienced by everyone today. It has music by Michael Brook, Paul Giger and the late U. Shrinivas. Deboo describes his style as ‘contemporary in vocabulary and traditional in restraints.’ Deboo enters the bare stage with his trademark gesture of stretched arms and fingers. The dance explores the stage like a painting in progress with slow habitation of the space in movements that is simple, deliberate and subtle.

Deboo’s training in Kathakali is seen in his hand gestures and extremely subtle shivering of the cheek muscles. But it is the Indonesian dance movements that seem to dominate. I watch his feet with fascination, the way they clutch the ground and the way the toes bend as he moves. This has become a trademark Deboo style. It is almost a state of being, a feeling, rather than an action.

There is an earnestness of purpose that can almost fatigue the viewers.

The movements are not coming from outer analysis but from an inner motivation. There is a unique shade of dynamism in gestures and steps. Astad Deboo has found a language of movement for himself .

As someone asked Deboo, “Is this dance?” One can confidently say, “Yes, it is.”

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 10:51:07 AM |

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