I bring something new to the table: Ustad Deboo

Raising the bar: Astad Deboo has been performing for five decades

Raising the bar: Astad Deboo has been performing for five decades   | Photo Credit: Amit Kumar

Astad Deboo on creating his own dance vocabulary and the state of contemporary dance in India

“The rasas play a very important role, even if it’s an abstract work,” says Astad Deboo as he proceeds to gesture a welcome. His eyes move with his arms, there is an abundantly warm smile on his face, or what we call in Sanskrit ‘smitam’. “You see, I am trying to express the bhava that I am happy to see you, and I am now receiving you,” says Deboo. After 50 years of dancing, Deboo’s life is testimony to the fact that dance is, in fact, the expression of oneself. Starting with the Indian classical dance and then moving to experiment with the contemporary style, only to create his own dance vocabulary later, Deboo’s style is perhaps something that can neither be copied, nor learnt. It can only be watched and appreciated. To mark Deboo’s 50 years of unrelenting talent, he was presented with an Excellence Award at the 8th edition of the Conde Nast Traveller– Reader’s Travellers’ Award Ceremony.

Surprise element

Deboo says, “The direction which I have taken is not a regular one. There have been a lot of walls that were and are still set up, at times the doors still won’t open. The struggle is there but on a different level. I have never really lobbied for any awards, so that surprise element is also a pleasure.”

For most established Indian dancers, dance chose them but in Deboo’s case, one can say that it was quite the opposite. His struggles were different. After training in Kathak for ten years, he was asked to quit by his father. “At that point, I saw that there was innovation happening in theatre, visual arts and music but nothing in dance. I happened to see an American dance company. Having grown up in Jamshedpur, which was then a small town, one was not really used to the Western forms of performances or music. So, seeing a company of bodies which moved with abandon, and the way the space and lights were used, got me curious. When I was about to finish my university, I managed to get myself into the Martha Graham School in New York,” says Deboo. But he never reached America in the first round, and instead, started to study the technique in London. He knew that it was not for him. “I spent the next 7.5 years in 31 countries, trying to absorb whatever I could. After coming back, I studied Kathakali to absorb another range of vocabulary,” he says. “After learning 16 years of Indian classical dance, my foundation is deeply rooted there. From there, to spending time with my body, I could evolve my own vocabulary, of being very minimal and controlled,” he adds.

Like any dancer, Deboo’s experiences have always added to this vocabulary. But his experiences have also been rather unique, owing to the direction he chose. His sojourn with Pina Bausch, the celebrated modern dancer who was equally unique in her style, also influenced him. “With Pina, it was a learning experience. She was one of the most important choreographers who really changed the landscape of performance. But they do have good amount of funding where they can really explore their art. She revolutionised the audience, not just with dance but also theatre. Till then I was a solo performer. I had my differences with Pina, in the way I wanted to express and how she would have liked me to, but it was a completely new experience for me to be surrounded by dancers from different countries,” he says.

Deboo’s understanding of his themes and subjects has always been one step ahead of his contemporaries. His creative prowess, at times, has been intimidating too. His choreographies are meticulously processed; each movement a carefully thought out one.

Supportive media

“For a good decade, my work was not recognised. The acceptance only came through the intellectuals, playwrights, theatre practitioners. The dance gurus were still very hesitant. It was only after I received my Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, when they thought that maybe I had some substance. The press has been very supportive of me through my journey of informing the general public,” says Deboo.

Deboo’s fascination with musical instruments is a strong one. “Without music there is no dance,” says he. From Dhrupad to Rudra Veena, his collaborations have always stood out. “My selection of music has been very eclectic. I came across Dhrupad in 1989 in Bhopal. It resonated with me. One has listened to a whole range of instruments and genres, but the music did not speak. Dhrupad spoke. I try to use their techniques and my vocabulary to create something. With collaborations, you are open and ready to discuss. There has to be respect for each other’s work; it reflects on stage,” adds Deboo.

Hard work

But dance is a blend of creativity and hard work and there is no substitute for either. “Once, an Indian classical dancer told me, ‘Astad we do 40 performances a year, and you create one, but you get written all over the nation.’ I guess I am able to bring something new to the table. Today, dancers say they have learnt contemporary, but what in contemporary? They watch videos, have a flexible body, and yes it can come under the title of contemporary. But there’s no depth. They are wonderful, athletic, acrobatic dancers but where are they going to go after a couple of years? What is their longevity going to be? All I am saying is that it is blood, sweat and tears, and frustration. There are only a few who are doing work which has substance,” he signs off.

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Printable version | Apr 3, 2020 10:26:45 PM |

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