India Still Lacks a Platform For Contemporary Dance: Astad Deboo

In conversation with contemporary dancer and choreographer Astad Deboo on his collaborations with performers from the Northeast, how he developed a style of his own and more.

Astad Deboo at Triveni Kala Sangam in New Delhi. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Astad Deboo at Triveni Kala Sangam in New Delhi. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

New Delhi: Astad Deboo, one of the most well-known names in contemporary dance and a pioneer of the form in India, may be nearing 70 now but he is still going strong. With a supple body and a strong back, his is a mind that continues to weave visually enthralling presentations, using a dance vocabulary that may be drawn from myriad traditions of the country and elsewhere but turned into something which he can claim to be his own.

On March 3, for the first time, he will bring to Delhi his latest show, which was created out of his long association with the Pung Cholom drummers of Manipur. Titled, ‘Rhythm Divine II – River Runs Deep’, the show, to be staged at the Kamani auditorium, will take forward from his last production with them, ‘Rhythm Divine – River Runs Deep’.   

During a recent visit to the city, The Wire caught up with the incredible dancer-choreographer to talk about his upcoming show and what constructs the thoughts and techniques that usually direct his work. 


What comprises the show ‘Rhythm Divine II –River Runs Deep’?

It is my work with the Pung Cholom drummers from the Imphal-based institute, Shree Shree Govindaji Nat Sankirtan. These drummers have been working with me for over ten years. This is the third production that I have done with them. It is not a brand new show; I have performed it in lots of cities but it took me a while to bring it to Delhi.

During the time I was working with the Thang Ta martial arts dancers of Manipur (‘The Celebrations’ is a production in collaboration with the Thang Ta dancers), I first got connected with Guru Seityaban Singh whose academy is Govindaji Nat Sankirtan. I was always fascinated by their presentation, in the sense that, though they were drummers but at the same time they were also dancers, acrobats – something which I wanted to incorporate in my work and wanted to see if it was possible.

While I was working with the Thanga Ta performers, I had an opportunity to bring them into a small creation, an event, which gave me an exploration process to see whether it would work in the longer run.

The Manipur gurus have guarded their traditions. They were open to work with me because I had established the seriousness of my work and also because of the fact that I was just not plucking something and simplifying it but retained their tradition.

But there were challenges, like I took the drums away from the drummers. I also did the same with the Thang Ta dancers by taking away their swords and spears. For the latest production, I brought in their kartal (cymbals) but in a very different way. Or even using mukhubole, but again differently. And then they eventually perform two sections where they use the dhol and the pung – their two drums, the way they would perform for the layman to show the drumming style of Manipur.

In a very subtle way, I also bring into the production the unrest which has been happening. But it is not in your face. I also show how they have confronted the unrest, how they really don’t overcome what is happening but at the same time they just go back and try to keep up (with life); they survive, they live.

As you have already mentioned, you have collaborated with Manipur’s Thang Ta dancers besides the drummers. But they are not the usual practitioners of mainstream performing arts. So what pulls you to them?

In my earlier years, when I was establishing myself as a contemporary performer and creator, the dance community (in mainstream India) was not open to me, they were not coming on board to work (with me). While we have many performing arts and dance techniques, what attracted me to those in the Northeast was that I found their whole presentation very dramatic, to begin with. And the fact that they were open to welcome me also helped.

Again, the gurus (in Manipur) are not very open to outsiders because they feel, may be, this person is just looking to have a performance, have one kind of a tamasha, and go away. But then they have seen my work, that there is sincerity in them, there is spirituality in them, there is dedication. It helped.

Again, a very interesting thing is, though I have been working with the Pung Cholom drummers for over ten years now, only in 2015 did I get an opportunity to showcase my work there (‘Rhythm Divine: River Runs Deep’). Most of the gurus and people there were so delighted to see it.

Has the platform for contemporary dancers grown since in India?

There is still the lack of a platform (for contemporary dance). I am presenting this show in Delhi along with the Raza Foundation. None of the other established (cultural) organisations here (in Delhi) said, please come. That way, yes, it is still a tough proposition to continue as a contemporary dancer in India.

Would you agree if I say that your work is much more accepted outside of India?

Not quite. In other countries too, I have to compete. Today, in India, I have established my name; there is a growing audience from among young people in this country who are inquisitive, who come to watch my work. But there is still lack of presenters (of my shows) in India. Again, this is art, not Bollywood.

Coming to Bollywood, often we hear those who practice Bollywood dance also call themselves contemporary dancers.

Yes, a lot of young dancers, when asked what have they studied, will say, contemporary. But you then realise they have not studied anything. Anything they do now becomes ‘contemporary’ dance. It is okay, once or twice, but after that, the performances don’t have content, no depth. That is why it is important to study a form.

Astad Deboo presenting 'Rhythm Divine – River Runs Deep' at the Ananya festival in New Delhi. Credit: Special arrangement

Astad Deboo presenting ‘Rhythm Divine – River Runs Deep’ at the Ananya festival in New Delhi. Credit: Special arrangement

In war dance forms like the Thanga Ta, the steps are very clear cut. The contours are very precise. Your style of dance also has very well-defined moves. Is that why these dance forms also attract you?

We need our feet to move. Say, in Thang Ta, even when they will pick up their leg and take it forward, it is a distinct move, while it may not be the case in most Indian dances. These are phrases of movement which I look at; (they) help me develop (a work). Sometimes, I may tell them (Thang Ta and Pung Cholum performers), I need you to jump higher; I need you to make a movement very pronounced. It is possible for them to do so because it is a part of their vocabulary which I then use to my benefit. So, when they are performing, you think, okay it is there; but when you take it away from the context and use it in another context, then you feel, hey, I know it.

You are the first person to have asked me this question, so it’s an eye of an individual, what do those eyes observe, see and then compare it to the dance of someone else and discern that it is not the same.

You have been teaching dance to deaf students for a long time. How do you go about the process?

I wasn’t trained to work with the deaf. It just happened by accident. I used to go to Calcutta in the 1980s. There is a theatre group, The Action Players, who work with deaf actors there. I happened to know the directors and asked them if I could do a workshop with the actors. They said, ‘Well, they are deaf.’ I said I do know that.

It was a challenge as to how I would communicate with them, how would I motivate them to dance. The first thing I said to them was, you all have to get synchronised, so you have to know how to count together. So I taught them how to count till eight but not just go into the usual pattern of counting one, two, three, four…like that, but with rhythm, say one, then say two, then three…like that (he demonstrates it by slowing down the counting process).

That was the rhythm they followed. So, if I said, let’s begin, everybody had to mentally begin counting and do whatever movement I would give them. They would also see me visually. At first, it was just copying (each other) and slowly they really got synchronised.

The whole process of teaching deaf students is interesting because even if they can’t hear music I still need it to teach them dance. Because only with the music can I create a work, can I inject emotion into it, the rhythm into it, can tie them into one whole.

Since those in the Calcutta group were actors and not dancers, I also used the face to teach them but with another group that I worked, the Clarke School for the Deaf in Chennai, they were dancers, already trained to some extent in Bharatanatyam. So they had the rhythm of movement. With them, I created a 60-minute show that dealt with the rasas, with music that was specially composed for it (it was presented at the 2oth Annual Deaf Olympics in Melbourne). I was working closely with the music composers too in that show, because each rasa has a different mood. So we were trying to see which would work, which wouldn’t. So, as I said, the process (of teaching deaf dancers) is always very interesting.

You taught deaf dancers outside of India too, in places like Hong Kong and Mexico. How different or similar was the process you followed there?

Those in Hong Kong and Mexico were more of a workshop kind of a situation. I worked more in that field in the Gallaudet University in Washington DC. It is the world’s largest university for the deaf. I was working with middle to high school students who were part of the university’s performing arts section.

In America, they also have a class for dance and movement in which a lot of people (not just deaf) participate in it also. I would say it was not really easier for me there than in India because in the American system of teaching, you are not supposed to push the child, you do not shout at them. It is completely opposite with my Indian students, sometimes my Indian students even get a wrap from me if they make a mistake (laughs).

Also, unlike in India, you have to know sign language in America to teach deaf students. In my case, I always had an interpreter in the class. Though I would send away the interpreter every now and then, because I also wanted them to learn through movements which have a vocabulary of their own.

Your dance has a very distinct vocabulary, like the long twirls, the clear-cut contours…how do you develop such a language of dance?

Having studied Kathak, I took the chakkar (twirl) from that form. However, the Kathak chakkar is very different from what I have evolved. In the late 1960s, discotheques were getting very popular in Mumbai [his home city]. It had trance music; we used to visit those discos and next thing I knew was that I could twirl. Okay, I can twirl for more than three minutes, then five minutes, it went on like that, and the latest one is for ten minutes.  Then again, twirling is not enough; when you stop you have to be steady, you can’t sway.

If I look at my creative graph, from the 1970s to now, I was much more energetic in the earlier days. I can still be so but the body also tells you something. While working with oneself, with the body, you are doing things, trying out…since my back is still very strong, I try (while choreographing a performance) how by using my back I can turn and twist. So, these are again processes which you discover in course of time. It is an ongoing thing.

Astad Deboo and his troup of Pung Cholom drummers of Manipur perform 'Rhythm Divine' at the Annual Ananya dance festival at Old Fort in New Delhi. Credit: PTI/Vijay Verma

Astad Deboo and his troup of Pung Cholom drummers of Manipur perform ‘Rhythm Divine’ at the Annual Ananya dance festival at Old Fort in New Delhi. Credit: PTI/Vijay Verma

Since the body is an important tool of dance, you have to continuously look after yourself. Is there any, sort of, ‘dancer’s diet’ or lifestyle that you follow?

No, I don’t follow any particular diet, but I eat sensibly. I make sure that I control the quantity of food. My weakness is sweets but I am able to burn it. I work out, go swimming.

Also, my work is very concentrated and balanced, which really requires me to go into another space. A lot of people ask me, do you go into a trance when you perform. No I don’t, I get into a pattern, a rhythm. Then there is the body’s accelerator which tells you how much can I step back. Sometimes, the body says ‘no, don’t go full hog’.

You have been dancing for over four decades, created a form of contemporary dance that you can call your own. Do you think about your legacy?

I do think about it. I will be 70 this year, I have been dancing for 48 years now, creating work, and I can still dance.

I feel teaching is a great responsibility. Even in my earlier years, when people were opening up their dance schools left, right and centre, I felt the same. It’s a great responsibility, particularly when you are teaching them a form that takes years. It is like a child going to school; if he doesn’t learn the vocabulary there, then he will never be able to make sentences, use paragraphs or phrases. I didn’t have, and still don’t have, the time for it.

Though I have worked with street children, invested time on train them in order to bring them to a certain level of performance, but that’s just those many kids. Then, once I close the show, some of them remain in the performing world, but they are more into puppetry, then some are also doing Bollywood (dance) in say, Kingdom of Dreams (Gurgaon). I am glad that they are able to make a living out of the craft they learnt (from me) and they continue to learn from others with whom they are working with now. That’s my legacy – train them and say, now fly. That way, they can also evolve.

Much as I would like them to continue with me, unfortunately, I would not be able to give them regular work. However, with the drummers of Manipur, it is different. Pung Cholom is also a ritual. When they are not working with me, they are also being invited to various homes, for births, deaths, marriages or for a performance.

For example, I worked with the kids of the Salaam Baalak Trust [among other productions, Deboo produced a 60-minute show ‘Breaking Boundaries’ with those children for the Commonwealth Games in 2010].

It was okay when the kids were performing with me, and getting a salary, experiencing through me travels nationally and internationally. But I am not there for them all the time. They are young people, need a living. But while I work with them, it is also mentoring them as human beings. There is an emotional bond with them, compared to the West where teaching is clinical. There, you see a talent, you try to improve it, but the approach is different. In India, it is based on the guru-shishya parampara, it is a very strong bond. Even if they are no more with you, they seek my opinion on a piece of work they have come up with. So there is a rapport. I rejoice it.