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Astad Deboo: Pilgrim, Pathfinder, Protagonist.

IAM A SIMPLE UNEDUCATED MAN MAKING DANCE, (1) STATES ASTAD DEBOO WITH unpretentious candour, as he stretches out on the tile floor for our tete-a-tete. And what a maker of dance! Through a career spanning five decades, Astad's name has become synonymous with contemporary Indian dance, his performances hailed as phenomenal and introspective. But what truly defines this pioneering artist is his ability to befriend life and all that it has to offer.

Like his predecessor Uday Shankar, revered as the father of Indian Modern Dance, Astad too was searching for personal expression through his dance. While the former's style, culled from India's classical and folk dances, celebrated nationalism, Astad's articulation birthed an aesthetic that embodied internationalism, for it was chiselled from his indefatigable travels filled with observations, explorations and self-discovery.

Whether it was selling his blood for $10 in Greece, teaching Kathak by day and washing dishes by night in London, modelling at a department store in Bangkok or becoming a camera caddy for a war photographer in Vietnam, Astad's travels helped him discover that "each day was a gift of seeing and experiencing".

All this learning would eventually influence not only how he danced and what he danced about, but how he lived when he got off the stage. Thus, the story of this maverick maestro is also the story of a distinct contemporary dance style that sprouted in Indian soil.

Ask Astad how he defines "contemporary dance", and he answers reflectively, "It is the dance done 'Now' in terms of concept and movement." And what is a "Now" movement? "It is a movement that has all my experiences in it."

For Astad, the experiences began early with his mother who filled their modest home in Jamshedpur with her artistry as she beaded door hangings, embroidered saris, and wove the sacred Parsi thread. Young Astad was sent to learn dance at age six, and his exposure to multiple styles began at Nritya Niketan with "a little Bharatanatyam and a little Odissi". But the arrival of Guru Prahlad Das grounded him in Kathak for a decade, right into his high school years.

Although his plans of studying acting gave way to an undergraduate degree in Commerce at R.A. Podar College in Bombay, the city became his ground of initiation when he watched the Louis Murray-Alwin Nikolais Dance Company from the United States create their whimsical extravaganza of light, music and movement. "Is this what dance can be!" marvelled his heart, as a thought began to crystallize in his mind--that while classical dance had provided him the threads, he must design his own motifs.

Astad's first physical experience of the possibilities of "new movement" was when dancer Uttara Asha Coorlawala, from the us, featured him in her choreography of Joyous Cosmology in 1968. Her training in the Martha Graham technique of modern dance brought new kinesthetic life into the dance. "In theatre, music and visual arts there was innovation happening," remarks Astad, "but not so much in dance. So I wanted to travel, learn and find out." His plan was simple. He would travel to the us and enrol in the Martha Graham School.

The Pilgrim

Five continents, 72 countries and counting! Does Astad travel to dance or dance to travel? He answers--"I dance to travel of course."

His travels however were not mundane cultural tours for studying different dance dialects. They were pilgrimages to discover his outer and inner strengths. These journeys, which inspired his avant-garde style of dance, had an equally unorthodox beginning.

Aware that his family could not afford to finance his globetrotting plan, Astad came up with an audacious scheme. He would hitchhike his way via Europe to America. He fabricated a non-existent dance scholarship to appease his parents' anxiety. Having applied for his us visa, which he would pick up in London, he packed a backpack with his dance-music cassettes, Kathak dancewear, $300, and boarded the dingy deck class of a cargo ship to Iran. On May 23, 1969, with goats, cows and vegetables as his co-travellers, 21-year-old Astad set sail.

It was the Iranian town of Korramshahr that first welcomed Astad and he sought shelter in a local gurdwara that night "because it was free", he chuckles. Over the next 90 days he hitchhiked through Turkey, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Belgium, France and finally into London.

Astad discovered that a "hitchhiking Kathak dancer from India" was quite a novelty and he used this to gain access into the dance community. His first break was in Iran on the television show of Mehrpouya, a popular singer. This opportunity not only let him share his dance, but also left him richer by $50. So he decided to land up at television stations wherever he went and charm them into letting him perform.

Astad recalls his youth hostel days fondly, for in these affordable burrows he learnt survival tips from fellow travellers. One way of making quick money was to sell a pint of blood, a means he put to use a couple of times.

While waiting in London for his us visa, Astad found "The Place", a dance school that offered lessons in the Martha Graham technique. He struck a barter deal, teaching Kathak in turn for training. But in three months he found the technique unsuitable for his body. Depressed and confused, he tried to inspire himself by reading interviews of great actors who spoke of washing dishes in their struggling days. "So I said, Aha! I must also wash dishes, and did that for about a week," he recounts amusingly.

During this period, he was invited to perform at a fundraiser organized by Arabella Churchill, the granddaughter of Winston Churchill. Here, he met the rock band Pink Floyd, and at Arabella's suggestion performed to their music.

With the us visa nowhere in sight, Astad decided to explore Canada, hitchhiking across the country from Montreal to Vancouver, taking dance lessons where he could and landing performances at universities by fascinating them with his hitchhiking history.

The timing of the 1970 World Expo and the allure of Kabuki and Butoh beckoned Astad to Japan. He befriended members of the World Youth Congress and joined their delegation to represent India through dance, performing for Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko. Astad stayed in Japan for one year, observing the grandeur and discipline of Kabuki at the prestigious Kabuki-Za School and earning his keep through English tutoring.

In 1971, Astad journeyed on, teaching and performing in Taiwan and Hong Kong. He travelled to the Philippines, Laos and Vietnam, and to Thailand, where he performed for the Queen Mother and got invited to the court of the great grandson of King Chulalongkorn. In Phnom Penh, he connected with the Cambodian palace dancers.

In 1972, Astad returned to India for his sister's wedding, and on the advice of scholar Sunil Kothari, he began training in Kathakali under Guru E. Krishna Panicker. Within six months, the long-awaited us visa arrived, and Astad left for America. He travelled via Sydney in 1973, his arrival synchronizing with the opening of the Sydney Opera House. Preparations were underway for the staging of Anne Boyd's opera, Rose Garden. Astad boldly auditioned and won the role of lead dancer. After month-long rehearsals and eight performances, he continued his Australian travels.

In 1974, Astad finally arrived in the United States of America. He spent the initial two years, and subsequent us visits, learning and experiencing all that he could-- Afro-Jazz dance in San Francisco, the Jose Limon technique of modern dance in New York and mentorship with Alison Chase in Connecticut. He also gave performances in Mexico.

In 1976, Astad travelled to South America for a 10-month sojourn and developed deep connections with Brazilian music and dance. His visits to Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile, Lima, Bogota and Caracas, enriched his perspectives about South America's indigenous cultures.

Astad returned to India in 1977 and went back to his Kathakali training, dedicating an intense three years to it. E. Krishna Panicker dubbed his pupil "Ramani", (2) so that guru and shishya could live and work unreservedly in the strict Hindu temple town of Guruvayur.

During this period, the legendary Pina Bausch saw Astad perform in Bombay and invited him to join her Tanztheater Wuppertal Company. So, in 1980, Astad left for Germany. It however turned out to be a bittersweet experience for the dancer who was trying to sculpt his own shapes through his body. "She wanted me to do everything in Kathakali style." When he resisted, she was not pleased. Astad stayed a while to observe and learn but eventually returned home.

These experiences only strengthened his resolve that he had to lay out his own path, for there was no trodden track he could follow. Finding presenters and funders was the least of his concerns; he had to first find his audience.

The Pathfinder

Astad's unique technique is distinguishable by its internalization and tranquil shaping of space. He describes it as being "deeply emotional, minimal and meditative with physicality of strength, concentration and controlled extensions". But it did not begin that way. Searching for a distinct movement idiom, the early days saw him experimenting with a style that he confesses was "fast paced--here, there, everywhere".

Those were challenging times. Dancers avoided him for fear of being ostracized by their gurus. Audiences were unresponsive to his contemporary style, and bureaucrats from the Ministry of Culture dismissed him, one official even predicting that his honours would only come posthumously. Such rejections did not demoralize Astad, for a lesson his travels had taught him was that "sometimes the going might be delayed but is never denied". He turned to the theatre world, which embraced him warmly. With the help of directors and playwrights, Astad began honing himself as a soloist.

In the beginning, Astad offered the narrative-loving minds of the Indian rasikas stories fashioned as performance art rather than abstract works. His tales however, came not from mythology, but from everyday life and the world around him.

Thus was born Broken Pane in 1982, a grim portrayal of drug addiction. In it, he smoked a cigarette through his nose, stuck a needle under his skin and knocked his head on the stage floor. His final smashing of a pane of glass sent him to a doctor on one occasion to get stitched up. Such blunt literalism made audiences wince, but Astad insists, "It would not have had that impact had it not been so literal."

In his Mangalore Street of 1984, Astad caricatured four characters--a mechanic, a tea-seller, a theatre director and a dancing girl--as seen through the eyes of an office clerk. Written by Sunil Shanbag, it showcased Astad's genius for theatricality as he mimicked, delivered dialogues, danced and even planned a showy stage entrance on a Vespa scooter though the theatre persuaded him to settle for a bicycle.

Astad's keen eye for lines, shapes and space became evident when he teamed up with architect-designer Ratan Batliboi in 1989 to conceptualize Chrysalis. Placing himself inside a 3 x 7 x 1 metre box with vents of various sizes, Astad used each opening as a window to a specific body part--his swinging legs, his emerging arms, his waist, neck and even eyebrows--each animated through its own opening as if it was an isolated entity. It was a striking early example of performance art that astonished audiences in India.

Astad found that contemporary dance allowed for messages that had no space in the classical dance tradition. He transformed Muktibodh's poem "Lakdi ka Ravan" into a parody of a politician. With the Gundecha Brothers providing the music, he premiered it at the 1990 Khajuraho Festival. To add dramatic flair, he borrowed the car of a visiting dignitary and entered the stage riding in it, complete with the flashing red beacon.

Working with director Satyadev Dubey and puppeteer Dadi Pudumjee, Astad envisioned the God of Death as a seducer, dancer and liberator of life in his Thanatamorphia. The stories of Romeo and Juliet, Radha and Yashoda, and even Balinese funeral rituals intermingled in this 1991 fantasy, which transformed the morbidity of death into a celebratory tribute.

Astad's growing reputation earned him a commission from Pierre Cardin to choreograph for the legendary ballerina Maya Plisetskaya at the Bolshoi Ballet.

In conversing with Astad, his innate sense of gratitude shines through. He remembers the name of every colleague and friend who has ever crossed his path. This inherent synergetic spirit has made him a loved collaborator. His first liaison in 1989 with puppeteer Dadi Pudumjee was propitiously named Friends. Today, that list of collaborating "friends" includes Dhrupad musicians, Japanese composers, Swedish opera singers, Iranian Oud players, actors, dancers, fashion designers, photographers and visual artists.

However, Astad's most enduring collaboration has been with not any single artist, but a region of India. It began in 1997 with an invitation to choreograph for the Onida Television Awards. He looked towards the art forms of Manipur, a region rigid in its traditions and rituals, and where any deviation was censured in those early years. He approached Guru Devabrata Singh, a Thang Ta martial arts exponent, who took interest in Astad's vision of marrying the art of sword and spear with the art of dance. Astad's work with Guru Devabrata's Hula group resulted in the 1998 creation Celebrations, which was performed in 15 countries.

Astad's most serendipitous moment in Manipur was when he met Guru Seityaban Singh of the Shri Shri Govindaji Nat Sankirtan group. The guru wanted a better life for his Pung Cholom drummers who had been reduced to playing for funerals and marriages for meagre earnings or even working as labourers. Astad offered them a cornucopia of opportunities. During their ten-year alliance, he created a challenging convergence of two divergent performance genres, while also throwing light on the political turbulence and social struggles of northeastern India. His productions Rhythm Divine 1 (2007) and Rhythm Divine 11 : The River Runs Deep (2014) were seen by audiences in five countries. In 2016, this collaboration earned the Astad Deboo Dance Company the prestige of being the first Indian contemporary dance group to be showcased at France's Bastille Opera House. The same year, he choreographed them in yet another work, Elemental Divine, depicting the principles of Zoroastrianism.

The mystic quality of his performance moved Korean director Hyoung-taek Limb into offering Astad the role of Hamlet's father in his 2015 production Hamlet-Avatar in Seoul, followed by performances in Chennai and Bangalore.

The gallery space of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the music of Japanese composer Yukio Tsuji inspired Astad's Eternal Embrace for the 2015 Moroccan Court Music Series. This piece brought his intensely emotional movements together with the soulful sounds of zither, shakuhachi flute, percussion and voice to interpret "Maati", a Sufi poem by Bulleh Shah about the impermanence of the world.

From stage to sites to the silver screen, Astad's arena is vast. In director Peter Kreutz's German documentary Tanz of the Saree, he created dance moves to depict a Kanjeevaram sari coming into existence. His creativity was sought by directors M.F. Husain for Meenaxi in 2004, Vishal Bharadwaj for Omkara in 2006 and Mani Ratnam for Raavan in 2010. The latter had him choreographing a stunt scene through a montage of escape manoeuvres.

The most compelling collaborations however, seem to happen when Astad's nomadic spirit, in love with intriguing locations, joins hands with his artistic spirit. During a 2015 fundraiser for the Head Injury Foundation at Mehrangarh, Jodhpur, Astad turned the narrow lip of the fort's 10-metre-high parapet into his dance dais. "I created stress for the organizers, especially considering it was a head injury related event," he says mischievously.

Astad's aim is to make the performance space itself come alive while inviting his audiences to view dance from new angles. At Champaner, he wore a goddess mask and began dancing on a 12-metre-high, partly crumbling wall, to an audience of not only invited guests but also villagers perched atop trees and home-roofs. So surreal was this vision that suddenly a villager exclaimed, "Look Devi Ma has come!"

There was the performance at Chettinad House, Chennai where he danced on the roof and another at the National School of Design where he navigated his dance through staircases, and ladders. Audiences at Mumbai's St Xavier's College had a hair-raising moment when he came dancing down a plank leading from the first floor into the patio, using only fabrics for support. Whether dancing at China's Great Wall, Spain's Alhambra or Munich's U-Bahn rail station, and even strutting the ramp for Lakme Fashion Week, Astad has a flair for the radical.

Astad has sketched his own distinctive style on his body canvas as well. His zig-zag hair-trim speaks his name as obviously as his facial features, and was once displayed by itself on a banner announcing his performance. Working with designers, he fashions his own signature gowns. So exquisitely stylish are they that their fame has travelled to Centre National du Costume de Scene in France, a museum which holds a collection of 20,000 theatrical costumes from around the world. When its curators met an Indian visitor in 2016, all they wanted to know was "could we have a few pieces of Indian dancer Astad Deboo's costumes?" (3)

The Protagonist

While it has become trendy for artists to choose a social cause as a performance theme, it requires vision, resourcefulness and perseverance to create a meaningful real-life engagement with the cause. Astad embodies these qualities, and is especially respected for his work with the hearing-impaired community in Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Washington dc, Mexico and Hong Kong.

A tough and unrelenting teacher, Astad is firm about one thing. "I did not want people to pity them because they cannot hear." Using concepts of space and synchronization, he challenged students to internalize dance movements. During performances, he drew audiences into the soundless world of the dancers by suddenly silencing the music.

Astad's care for the young dancers is evident when he talks of making sure that they all had their own bank accounts and of persuading cell phone companies into providing them mobile devices so that they can message their families while on tour. His passion manifests in his concern about the lack of facilities for hearing-impaired dancers in schools. "They need wood flooring to pick up vibrations. If I hit the floor, they would look up to wait for instruction. It's absolutely essential."

Through his work with the runaway street children of New Delhi's Salaam Baalak Trust, Astad says he aimed at "breaking their boundaries to come into a new boundary of mine". These youngsters, whose only exposure to dance had been through Bollywood films, were suddenly delving into abstract concepts like minimalism, exploring contained space and defying gravity. This was a life-altering experience for the children. They danced for political dignitaries, attended press meets, starred in documentaries, performed at the choicest of venues and engaged in dialogues with audiences. The dancers responded with affection and reverence for their generous coach and his faith in them.

After the stage spotlight turns off, Astad continues his work through his Astad Deboo Dance Foundation (addf). Besides funding creative activities, and aiding the artistic development of the differently abled, addf has also extended its nurturing arm to directly sculpt the lives of the artists that have come into Astad's dance-embrace and their stories are deeply moving. But Astad prefers that they remain unrevealed.

Whether it was the street children, hearing-impaired dancers or Manipuri drummers, Astad's work with them has been instigated by his respect for their talent. While demanding professionalism in their work, he also ensured that they were treated like professionals--receiving proper performance fees, staying in fine hotels, travelling in comfort and seeing the world in the best light. Questions such as why he is introducing them to a 5-star lifestyle enrage him. "It is not just about dance," he asserts. "It is also about opening them to things they would never have seen otherwise, and they deserve it."

Astad's achievements received their due acknowledgement when the Government of India recognized him with the Sangeet Natale Akademi Award in 1997 and the Padma Shri in 2007. While appreciative of these honours, he declines to talk about them. "Fame! One day it is there, next day it is not," he says. "One has to better oneself with each show." It is the opportunity to create that is his motivator, for he considers each performance to be a cherished relationship between his audience and his imaginative spirit.

Does Astad contemplate on training successors to carry on his legacy? Such ideas elicit no real interest in him and it is easy to see why. His quest has been less about finding a place for himself in the art world, and more about seeking beauty within and without, in order to shape a life purpose for himself. And he has done that to his contentment. Through the rapport that he has sustained for decades with all those he had mentored, he has upheld the revered tradition of guru-shishya kinship.

When asked about developing an Astad Deboo pedagogy, he laughs. "I am not a scholar to do all that. Someone has to watch me teach and give an intellectual spin on it." In the meantime, his enthusiasm is all about stimulating encounters and fresh dance designs. There is no such thing as reaching a pinnacle, he feels, because "what has been done has been done in the past. As a performer, my work is a continuing one."

Despite the legendary aura that surrounds him, a tint of sadness colours Astad's voice as he wonders about the non-acceptance that he still sometimes faces in India and about his fund-raising struggles. But his buoyant spirit returns rapidly because after all, "there is a lot to do and much to hope for". And there indeed is, for Astad Deboo holds the doors open for them to happen.


(1) All quotes by Astad are from an interview with writer Ramaa Bharadvaj on May 3 and 4, 2016, in Bangalore.

(2) A typical South Indian name, especially popular among Kerala brahmins.

(3) Reported by Mayank Mansingh Kaul on June 24, 2016.

Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.

Caption: 1. Astad Deboo, 1980.


Caption: 2. Astad with martial art performers of Imphal in Celebrations, 1996.


Caption: 3. Astad in Chewing Gum, 1982.


Caption: 4a-c. Astad in Basics, 1982.


Caption: 5a and b. Astad in Interpreting Tagore, 1995-96.


Caption: 6. Rhythm Divine il, 2014, with Pung Cholom dancers, at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (ncpa), Mumbai.

Choreographer: Astad Deboo.


Caption: 7.

Astad in Hamlet-Avatar, 2015, with actors of the Seoul Factory Theater Company, Seoul.


Caption: 8. Astad in Ode to Champaner, 1996.


Caption: 9. Astad with dancers of the Salaam Baalak Trust in Guanajuato, Mexico at the Festivale Internationale de Cervantico, 2013.


Caption: 10. Astad in Rhythm Divine II, 2014.

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Author:Bharadvaj, Ramaa
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jun 1, 2017
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