Astad Deboo travelled the world in search of physical expression. He tells Shougat Dasgupta how life on the road shaped him as a dancer
EVEN IF you understand that dance is transformative, transfiguring, that dancers onstage perform illusions with their bodies, it is surprising how physically unprepossessing Astad Deboo is, standing before you in a baggy shirt. His shoulders slump. The lines shaved into his short hair, easy to pick out from the audience, seem fuzzy, indistinct from just a few feet away. His face is soft around the edges. Part of this is exhaustion. We met, early in September, in Delhi before he had to catch a flight to Bengaluru to do a show. He was to perform ‘Interpreting Tagore’, for which he’s been touring for a year now, a personal, eclectic (including work from Finnish and Japanese musicians) homage to the poet as part of the 150th anniversary celebrations. There were more trips after Bengaluru, abroad, back to Delhi, to Mumbai where he performed at a festival last week. You can see why his shoulders might have been slumping.
But to be surprised, to try and explain why Deboo looks like any other tired, busy 65-year-old man would look is to acknowledge the extraordinary transformation that occurs when he dances. Under the bright lights, the slackening body under that loose shirt is taut, every small gesture under control, every movement purposeful, the lines drawn somehow distinct yet fluid. Deboo’s physical charisma, his physical command, is total. His friend, Chandrika Grover, director of Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council’s Delhi office, believes “what sets [Deboo] apart is what he is still able to do with the dancer’s body. What he still manages to express with his body is utterly extraordinary.” Grover’s use of ‘still’ is revelatory, partly because it is extraordinary that a dancer can continue to perform into his 60s as the body becomes progressively less limber, less supple, as the hinges creak and groan in protest and also in the other sense of the word ‘still’, the sense in which Grover didn’t use it.
DEBOO’S DANCING now marked by how little and how slowly he moves, how everything is achieved through precise evocation, through the confidence and the talent to hold his ground, to stand still. His dancing is as placid and, when you look long enough, as hypnotic as the surface of a lake. Dancer Aditi Mangaldas describes herself as “absolutely fascinated”, as “finding beautiful his slow evolution of movements.” Writing inTimeOut Mumbai, Suhani Singh notes that photographer Ritam Banerjee (who released a calendar of Deboo portraits in January) “captures the stillness of Deboo’s work”. She quotes Banerjee as saying Deboo’s “dancing is not too flamboyant. There is not too much jumping about.” It’s that “minimalism”, as Banerjee puts it, that he wanted to replicate in the photographs. Deboo danced at the launch of the calendar, before a backdrop of Banerjee’s photographs — of water, mountains, birds frozen in mid-flight. The photographs are projected onto curtains and as Deboo moves in and out of the panels, the pictures undulate and ripple, echoing Deboo’s movements as he echoes their shapes, their quiet expansiveness.
‘Once Astad was mugged in a hotel lobby in Brazil while his troupe watched. They thought he was being tickled,’ recalls Trehan
Artist Anjolie Ela Menon says Deboo “conveys a feeling of levitation — that is one of the greatest things he does.” An old friend of his, Menon says she has “been very inspired in my paintings by Astad’s body language.” Of course, the acclaim for Deboo, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2007, has not always been so universal, his critics unable to place his hybrid techniques, dubious about his piecemeal classical training and resistant to Western-inflected contemporary dance. Deboo did take kathak lessons as a boy (and later kathakali), encouraged by his mother. He was born in Gujarat, a midnight’s child of sorts born a month before Independence. The family moved to Jamshedpur, where his father worked for Tata Steel. Deboo credits his parents, “very simple people,” with openness, with letting him have his way.
Certainly, not many middle-class parents would have reacted calmly to their son giving up studies in Mumbai to attempt to hitchhike to Europe and eventually the US on the basis of a single performance by a modern dance company from New York. The performance so electrified Deboo, whose training in kathak and kathakali was too reverent, too attached to the past, that he was determined to seek out Martha Graham, already in her 70s and a towering, overwhelming icon of contemporary dance. In 1969, Deboo boarded a boat to Iran, armed with permits and visas and determined to make his way through Europe to London.
“I was a flower child,” Deboo says, incongruously, sitting as we are in the India Habitat Centre’s American Diner, a paean to an earlier decade, to the imaginary wholesome America of the 1950s. The memories pour out, of an American GI who drove him 500 miles across Europe and swinging London, of some “very wealthy Sardars who let me stay at their flat in Cumberland Place”. Deboo is not given to sentiment but it’s clear that the world he is describing of the early ’70s is less guarded, more receptive to newness and possibility than the present. It didn’t take much money to live even in a city like London and Deboo found that people were always willing to barter, that he could give a kathak lesson in exchange for one in contemporary dance. In London, unable to make it to the States because he didn’t have a visa, Deboo quickly worked out that the Martha Graham’s style was not for him.
“The lessons I took in London in the Graham technique were all about ‘contraction and release’,” he says, “it was all very industrial, I was used to something more flowing.” These were his first steps towards self-expression. If in India it was “all Krishna and Ravana”, the jagged, intense, physical dance of the US — created in and reflecting the great, industrial, urban centres — didn’t feel intrinsic: “I was more drawn to Asian dance forms, to what I saw when I travelled to Japan or Indonesia.” When Deboo returned to India, after nearly a decade, having travelled through dozens of countries, through Europe, Asia, the Americas, it was to utter indifference. He found his language, his physical self-expression, but had no one to talk to and no one was willing to take the time to listen. It took him a year, with the “help of friends from the theatre scene, like Jennifer Kendal and Satyadev Dubey,” to get his first in gig in Mumbai.
More than 30 years later, Deboo still feels he has to prove himself. “Despite 45 years of experience as a dancer,” he says, his tone more resigned than bitter, “I still have to wait outside corporate lenders’ doors, still have to have my work reviewed by some executive.” The work Deboo is talking about is his much lauded success with kids from the Salaam Balak Trust. Eight of them now accompany him in his ‘Interpreting Tagore’ performances. As with dancing itself, Deboo felt his way into teaching, working intuitively — trying, failing, trying again, failing again but failing better. Journalist Madhu Trehan, another of Deboo’s many friends, tells an illustrative anecdote: “Astad has had an extremely tough life despite being an artiste of his calibre. But he soldiers on with his sense of humour in place. Once he was mugged in a hotel lobby in Brazil, while his troupe watched. They thought he was being tickled.”
One of the poems Deboo includes in ‘Interpreting Tagore’ is ‘Walking Tall’, better known to Bengalis, to all Indians, as ‘Ekla Cholo Re’. It’s a poem about integrity, about being unafraid. It’s the poem of Astad Deboo’s life.
With inputs from Ayan Meer
Shougat Dasgupta is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.