Dancing on the edge: In conversation with Astad Deboo

At 71, Astad Deboo still walks with the leaping grace of a warrior

Updated - July 15, 2018 06:52 pm IST

Published - July 14, 2018 04:37 pm IST

Astad Deboo performs at the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha July Festival in Chennai.

Astad Deboo performs at the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha July Festival in Chennai.

Is it sweet revenge to be acclaimed as a living legend of dance right here in the most conservative of dance bastions?” I ask Astad Deboo. He is in Chennai to receive the Yagnaraman Living Legend Award for 2018 at the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha July Festival.

Deboo is not pretending to be a living legend. It’s still morning. He is wearing pink and grey candy-striped shorts and a T-shirt and sitting cross-legged on a sofa. His hair is steel grey. It is corn-row plaited into corrugated bands that hug his scalp. I am instantly reminded of the Caterpillar smoking a hookah in Alice in Wonderland .

I have known him from his bad boy days when he electrified the Mumbai dance world of the late 70s with a performance at Prithvi Theatre. It was so raw it ripped the sensibilities of what had been perceived as dance.

The stage was dappled with blood. His blood. That he allowed to drip from the incisions he made with a blade. A lit flame singed the hair on his powerful forearms. As a grand finale he contorted his body so that he became all tongue. The tongue became the dance. He licked his way across the stage wiping the dirt off the floor.

Ups and downs

“No. No. Revenge is never sweet,” he says reflectively. “My journey has been full of ups and downs. Even today after 50 years, or 40 years, it’s difficult to get a sponsor for contemporary dance. It’s not easy to produce oneself. You are always dancing on the edge.”

Of late, it’s Astad Deboo the legend who has been in the limelight. Last year for instance he was invited for a sparkling ceremony of artists, dancers, musicians and sportsmen at Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen. He wore a black Jodhpur outfit with a magnificent shawl from the northeast of India draped over his left shoulder like a cape.

“What did you say to the Queen?” I ask.

“Well, I said: Good evening your Majesty,” he replies. “She greets you and then you move on.”

Later, he explains, as they were nudged discretely into smaller groups, the Queen came along and asked him; “You are a dancer?” And she added, “I hear you are a pioneer?” and when he nodded, she stretched out a gloved hand and said: “I too can dance a little you know!” And to Astad’s delight, she twirled her left hand into a little mudra.

London was one of the watering holes that nurtured the young Deboo’s passion for contemporary dance. He had been trained in the Kathak style early in life. He started when he was just six. His parents were living at Jamshedpur. Though born into a traditional Parsi family (he still wears a sudreh and kusti — plain cotton undershirt and consecrated waist string), Jamshedpur was a melting place of modern India. As he is fond of saying, the Jesuits at the school gave him a strong sense of Christian values, the Bengali Hindus included them in all their cultural activities, while the Kathak style instilled in him the essence of Islamic culture.

It was only much later, when he returned from his travels across the dance world, both learning and teaching different dance techniques, that he went to Kerala to induct himself into Kathakali and the martial arts.

It was the Age of Rebellion. Punk had entered the soul with the promise of liberation. In the arts, in music, in dance, in fashion, in sex, amplified by the revolution in communication that allowed for the dissemination of these radical ideas. The rebel was the anti-hero. Or as one of the popular mentors of the time, Carlos Castaneda, explained, the rebel was a warrior. “We choose only once. We choose either to be warriors or to be ordinary men. A second choice does not exist. Not on this earth.”

 Astad Deboo performing at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in Chennai

Astad Deboo performing at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in Chennai


A disturbing language

Deboo chose to be a warrior. He does not actually say this. It informs the choices that he makes. After his time in the U.K. where he learnt the dance technique of Martha Graham, consorted with the Pink Floyd group, trained under Alice Becker Chase of Pilobolus and Pina Bausch, not to leave out the time he choreographed the famous ballerina Maya Plisetskaya in Paris under the eyes of Pierre Cardin, Deboo chose to spend a year in South America, where he learnt the Capoeira martial dance form. As he says, “I knew I had all these worlds within my dance language that I wanted to explore.”

Often, as the case has been with Deboo, the language of dance would be harsh and even disturbing. In his depiction of a drug addict in ‘Broken Pane’ in the 1990s, even his normally sedate Western audiences were shocked as he jabbed a syringe into the veins of his arm not just once, but three times in the course of the evening, banged his head repeatedly on the ground and writhed with the agony of the condemned. It was like a collaboration between Hieronymus Bosch and a Kathakali artist.

Giant puppets

“Even the French critics felt it was over the top, waving that syringe around sticking out of my arm. It should merely be symbolic, they cried,” Deboo shakes his head at the memory.

Equally disturbing were his experiments with ‘Death’ with the famous Parsi puppeteer Dadi Pudumjee’s giant puppets.

As against these often stark and even quasi-violent pieces, Deboo — who has also won formal accolades such as the Padma Shri and a Sangeet Natak Akademi award for creative dance — displays his most delicately nuanced side when he works with children.

His work with the street children of the Salaam Baalak Trust led to the piece ‘Breaking Boundaries’ that was shown at Kalakshetra.

And a long-term engagement with the hearing-impaired children of Kolkata’s The Action Players and The Clarke School for the Deaf in Chennai created some of the most life-affirming moments in dance. He led the audience and the performers in raising their arms in a ‘hand and finger wave’ signal at the end instead of clapping.

In every case Deboo has tried to create a narrative for himself. In the context of how so much of our ‘experimental’ work, whether in dance or the arts, is derivative at best, or imitative at worst, Deboo’s instinct to let the body lead him into revealing its secrets has been what makes him a ‘warrior’.

In recent times his work with Manipuri martial art dancers and drummers has led to a cultural cross-fertilisation of the most vivid kind.

As he described it, the Manipuri dancers have a very strong tradition of wielding their instruments of war and swirling with the momentum of getting ready to kill and be killed. While he was in the process of deconstructing these movements for a performance-based display, he observed how their traditional teachers would come and watch. “It was only when I suggested that they crouch as though crawling through the jungle, that they protested. Warriors never crouch. They leap!”

The dancer who turned 71 on July 13 still walks with the leaping grace of a warrior.

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