CONSIDER THE unpurposed thigh, cantilevered over a sofa. A belly’s sway as it enters a car. Or the gamin rub of ankles. Such remain the physical mercies denied by our everyday inattention. A modern dancer is attentive to the same movements with the aim of finding musicality and meaning. With Astad Deboo, India’s leading contemporary dancer and choreographer, this means balancing all the varying pressures inside him — the geometricity of kathak, the muscular daintiness of kathakali, and the formalised freedoms of western masters like Pina Bausch and Martha Graham.
Deboo recently performed his latest production, Breaking Boundaries, in Delhi with children of the Salaam Baalak Trust — a group of street children who trained with him for six months before taking to the stage. The Padma Shri awardee’s work with children started 20 years ago when he trained the Action Players in Kolkata, a group of deaf children. Arundhati Ghose of India Foundation of the Arts, one of the few organisations that has funded Deboo, marvels at the effort and time he spends on each project. “For his work with deaf children, he has travelled across the country. People don’t know that enough,” she says. There’s much of him that people don’t know. Over coffee, 62-year-old Deboo chatted with TEHELKA about his life’s intense struggle to forge modern dance as a viable movement in India.
Born in 1947, Deboo grew up in Jamshedpur and Kolkata. Dance came in the form of recreational kathak training at the age of six, along with the usual boyish pursuits of academics, elocution and the Boy Scouts. His parents did not realise until later how keen their son was on dance. Deboo went to study commerce and economics in Bombay, where his parents made him stop taking dance classes. But events were programming themselves towards a vocation.
At the age of 20, Deboo had an epiphany when he saw the Murray Louis Dance Company from the US perform abstract dance. “I had never seen such an amalgamation of bodies with such agility, with no inhibitions, the way the space was used,” he says. The idea that a production could be abstract freed him from the same old stories of Krishna, Radha, Rama, Sita. Deboo enrolled with Uttara Asha Coorlawala, a young modern dancer studying in New York, to feed this curiosity about working as a group totality versus the isolated techniques of Indian classical dance.
Drifting, searching or escaping — travel has been fundamental in his life. In college, Deboo made a plan to hitchhike across Europe. Raring to go before the monsoons broke and wanting to circumvent the RBI red tape choking foreign travel, he decided to take the last summer ship. A 12-day sail with sheep, goats and vegetables at the bottom of a cargo ship landed him in Iran, and his wandering days had begun.
Deboo laughs at the memory. “My philosophy has always been, whatever happens, happens for your good, and if things don’t happen immediately, then they are delayed, not denied.”
Meanwhile, Coorlawala had helped gain him admission to study dance in New York and off he loped, with vague promises to parents of studying management on the side. He journeyed for years, in and out of 30 countries, but stayed steadfast on the purpose of his travels — to present his work. He gives an example of his year in Japan. “I was doing odd jobs — teaching English, being a fashion model, a host in an allwomen’s bar. The money was great, and then one day, I was offered a long-term job teaching English. I slammed the brakes. I uprooted myself, after having made friends, enjoying the country, picking up the language.”
There’s been one blind spot in his work’s wanderlust: Mumbai is home but Deboo doesn’t work there at all. “The city doesn’t really inspire me.” But Mumbai yet works for him since it has his 93- year-old mother, and what he calls his “think-tank,” the team that helps him for sets, lights, and ideas, such as theatre director Sunil Shanbag, architect-designer Ratan J Batliboi, and of course, the omnipotent corporate donors.
THE CITY IS emblematic of a larger inertia. “Initially, it was really a struggle… listening to all sorts of humiliation.” The Indian establishment considered contemporary dance a rootless foreign import, while the West only wanted him to showcase hothouse Eastern classicism. Acceptance of the serious aesthetic foundation of his work was hard-won. Deboo mimicks an old man’s croak, “I remember gurus saying, ‘What’s this one hand here, one leg spread there, you call this dance? What’s this kiddo trying to say?’” A gentleman at the Ministry of Culture told him, “Pioneers like you get recognition only after dying. Don’t keep any hopes!” MK Raina, theatre veteran and friend, says that while Deboo has received recognition with awards and honours, there’re still no reliable facilities, funds or institutional support. “He has to do everything himself, including typing letters. Every day is a struggle from zero.”
Deboo has kept pace with tackling the abstractions of serious modern dance — addiction, the nuclear bomb, insomnia. But one issue he’s been careful about is HIV. All through the 1990s Deboo lost many friends to the epidemic. He was “hands-on” while seeing them deteriorate and pass away. But he declined funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation since he didn’t feel inspired. He says, “There’s a lot of money available for HIV but I need to be true to my art.”
He learnt kathakali for years, eventually performing in the Guruvayur temple. Kathak seems to have been fortuitous grounding, its algorithms apt for translation into abstract forms. He has often left the proscenium to perform on sites as diverse as a friend’s house, Elephanta, and the Great Wall of China. And he’s been a keen collaborator, engaging various Indian resources like Manipuri martial artists and pung cholom drummers, master puppeteer Dadi Pudumjee, drupad, and the visual arts.
Deboo has often combined a camp sensibility with formal dance training to his advantage. When he first started to build an audience, he would mix serious dancing with some capering, “to bring them in,” including jazz and salsa. In his production Mangalore Street, he entered the stage on a bicycle, mimicked Bombay street characters and their voices, blended in film music, and did a mujra, all to get into the skin of his main character, a clerk called Joglekar.
He’s open to working in films — he choreographed MF Hussain’s film Meenaxi and a promotional clip for Omkara — but most Bollywood routines have the same “seven-eight steps, wigwag, jiggle-jiggle, change of location, change of costume,” he notes. “The camera and editor are the ones bringing the dance alive.” Over time, he’s become increasingly interested in controlling a stance for long periods, such as twirling continuously in kathak chakras for 10 minutes. Ghose notes about his later style, “It’s as if the artist’s gone inside and doesn’t care as much about showy-ness.”
The rage to contemporarise has come to Indian dance too, but Deboo has mixed feelings. He stresses the importance of rooting yourself in tradition. “I feel sad when I see on television that there isn’t a single program of any depth about our traditions. In the Salaam Balak kids, there is rawness but also willingness to continue even it if is difficult — that gives me satisfaction.” He looks forward to continue performing and choreographing, to sites like New York’s Joyce theatre and Japan’s Toga festival, to exploring the trance-like states of theyyam. A few days after our meeting, he texts saying that he’s headed to Manipur again to work with his drummers. “Am going to perk their spirit up,” he writes.