The enchanting web of Astad Deboo

“Unbroken Unbowed” is not only a tribute to the Mahatma, it also echoes the master choreographer’s eventful journey

At a time when most of the dance community is silent on the growing intolerance in society, Astad Deboo unequivocally chooses right from wrong. “I have never been an artist of the government,” he says. Recently, at MICA (Mudra Institute of Communications), Ahmedabad, Deboo dedicated his evening to the students and faculty of the Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Everybody was surprised that I would make a statement like that. I am a Parsi but I was born and brought up in India. I am very much a part of it, as is anyone else. A friend once asked me, what is it to you, how does it matter to you? I said that I am a Hindustani first,” says Deboo. “Unfortunately, dancers have never been vocal. In my own way, I try to speak,” he adds.

Tribute to the Mahatma

Deboo is never circumspect. Even with his choreographies, it is his decision whether to make you feel unsettled, provoke or make you laugh for that matter. His recent performance in Delhi, “Unbroken Unbowed”, organised by Rasaja Foundation, rendered a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi.

One of Gandhiji’s quotes read, “I have been very disappointed with educated people”. “It stands so true to the times we live in,” says Deboo. The work took on four quotes by Mahatma Gandhi, and interpolated them with music. “It also is a statement on my own life. I was not accepted as a dancer in the beginning, but I think my resolution to not break and bow has gotten me where I am today,” he avers. Deboo went back to his favourite Dhrupad with singer Amelia Cuni’s work. Further, he used compositions by Italian composer Alio Die, Koto player Satsuki Odamura, and the Fado (a music genre of Portugal) singer Amina Alaoui. A special piece was also composed for the production by Dom Bufford.

Deboo was accompanied by six other dancers for the 68-minute-long performance. An integral part of his dancing journey has been Deboo’s iconic costumes. What began with a unitard soon gave way to flared dhotis and long, layered angrakhas.

For “Unbroken Unbowed”, renowned designer Sandhya Raman designed the costumes for Deboo. Says Sandhya, “Astad himself was the inspiration for me. He brings out the calmness in anybody. For this production, I used khadi. It was very important to me. It has to look minimal and yet powerful. I also did a silhouette, to make it look different followed by a layering. Khadi is the fabric of the soul, and using it for performing arts is a statement.” Deboo’s dance displayed his signature stillness, interspersed with his subtle bhava and hand gestures. With Deboo in the centre, the dancers, Shamsul, Rohit Varma, Narayan Sharma, Govind Godiyal, Pradeep Kumar, and Vicky Yadav rendered neatly synchronised performances; often moving like a unit yet never sabotaging their individuality.

Making of the master

Sometime in the early 1950s, the six-year-old Deboo was sent to learn Kathak. At 20 something, after watching the Murray Louis Dance Company, he decided to board a cargo ship with a backpack to explore dance. He sat on a dock, next to goats and sheep, and set sail to study, know and understand this decision. Today, at 72, he sits gracefully across the table to talk about the dance he has defined. There is a remarkable consciousness with which Deboo has carried himself out through decades of dancing and his artistic recognition is only one kind of testimony to it.

Through the scrupulous use of the techniques he learnt in Kathak, Kathakali, and contemporary dance, Deboo’s choreographies have seamlessly displayed his creativity. He says that whenever he takes from another culture, it has to complement his work.

In “Asylum”, which first premiered in 1983, he depicted a madman who fell in love with the edge of his foot. “That part of the foot is his child, his lover,” says Deboo. He further evolved an entire sequence with the toe. The edge of the foot plays a crucial role in Kathakali. In “Insomnia” (1984), he worked with his dear friend and theatre artiste Sunil Shanbag. “Sunil was there with me since the beginning of my journey, when he was a young protégé of Satyadev Dubey,” says Deboo.

“Insomia” traced the character’s flashbacks, his steps towards success, evil and eventual downfall. One of his remarkable choreographies is “Mangalore Street” where Deboo deployed speech for the very first time in his work. “In 1981, Pina (Bausch) had invited me to Wuppertal. After having spent a year, when I came back, the East West Dance Encounter was being organised by Max Muller Bhavan. Pina’s work also juxtaposed dance and theatre. I thought, being a contemporary dancer, one has the freedom of expressing oneself. Sunil wrote the dialogues for the piece.”

In “Mangalore Street”, Deboo skilfully depicted a street in Mumbai through the life of his character Joglekar. As he reminisces “Mangalore Street”, Deboo gives us samples of the voice modulations of Joglekar, Alyque Padamsee, a chaiwala, and a sex worker – all characters of “Mangalore Street”. He even breaks into singing “Main hoon Don”. “It was a part of the sequence too. Whenever I repeated it, I have used whatever film was the current hit. At that time it was ‘Don’,” chuckles Deboo.

He says each choreography meant a different challenge and the people always remember him for the unexpected. “Even though ‘Chewing Gum’ was a three-minute piece, it has stayed with many because it was unique, and often funny,” he says.

At the Clarke School for the Deaf, Deboo worked with eight girls who were trained in Bharatanatyam, creating a choreography of 60 minutes on Navarasas, rendering 75 performances including the opening of the Deaflympics in Melbourne. “Since they were trained in Bharatanatyam, I could get them to count in fours, sevens and nines. For the others I used the count of eight,” he adds.

Often, Deboo has taken to some of the most unconventional spaces for his work, like the museum, the street, even the Great Wall of China. To withdraw dance from the proscenium and take it to these locations means changing the conversation between the dancer and the viewer. “Dance has always been seen in an auditorium. When you take the dance outside of it, space speaks. The space comes alive. The space itself becomes a part of the performance,” says Deboo.

Apart from his training in Kathak, the twirls have an anecdotal story in the discotheques of Mexico. “Oh! I was a great disco person,” laughs Deboo. “It was while spinning and twirling at the disco, one night, that I realised how much I could.”

At the crux, the constantly evolving spins, twirls, and bends of his body have rendered the space and the dance itself timeless. For the viewer, it often becomes about viewing these conversations Deboo has with his body, space and time, often entering a continuum. He says, “My work is minimal. I am like the spider that catches you into his web.”

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