Dancing to his own beat!

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As an artist, Astad Deboo needs no formal introduction. Credited as being the pioneer of contemporary dance in India, the recipient of the Sangeet Natak Academi Award for Creative Dance in 1995 was also awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India in 2007. Alliance Française de Madras and Prakriti Foundation – with the support of Saint-Gobain (AF Madras Gold Sponsor), The Park, Chennai (Hospitality Partner) and Eventjini.com (Online Partner) – had recently invited the maestro to perform his piece Eternal Embrace on December 14 at the Edouard Michelin Auditorium. A conversation with the living legend is reproduced below.

Photo Credit – Ritam Banerjee

When we talk about Astad Deboo there are certain nodes which are often mentioned – childhood in Kolkata where you were introduced to Kathak, going abroad to study American and European dance techniques etc. Looking back at your life, how do you see yourself ?

Like any normal human being but whose passion is dance – as someone who took the bull by its horn and said Ok let’s see where this journey of mine will take me. Each day during the course of my travels has been a gift to experience different cultures and people.

You have talked extensively about how difficult it was to create a space and to claim legitimacy for contemporary dance in India. How did you go about doing it ?

There was no Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 etc. It was a matter of sheer perseverance and also the fact that one stood by one’s creations. I’ve never come across any of my works which has been completely rubbished by everybody. The people whose opinions matter to me have always been there to give me a thumbs up. These include the playright Satyadev Dubey, the journalist Madhu Trehan (founding editor of India Today), Jennifer Kapoor etc. Along the way were also people who appreciated art in general.

It took time to cultivate audiences because initially they would ask « Why is there no story ? » and « Why are you doing something abstract ? ». When you go look at a piece of art which is abstract, you see what you get out of it. My work is similar – it is titled, you see and appreciate what you can get out of it.

Photo Credit Ritam Banerjee

In certain ways, it’s still difficult. Just because one has achieved something and come up to a certain standard doesn’t mean that things fall into one’s lap. I’m my own manager, I don’t have an agent and hence I wear many hats apart from the creative ones. You have to ensure that the word is out. The show Eternal Embrace in Madras kickstarted with two days which I got in Bombay for the contemporary dance festival and then I sent word out to different cities. Pierre-Emmanuel (Director of AF Madras) knew my work and I asked him if we would consider it and he said yes. And then Ranvir Shah, the Founder of Prakriti Foundation, came along and we decided to join hands.

Let’s talk about Eternal Embrace. I believe that it is a collaborative piece inspired by the Sufi poet Hazrat Bulleh Shah’s poem Maati. How did these influences come into your life and how did this piece emerge from them ?

I was invited by the Islamic Art department of the Metropolitan Museum of New York. My friend Navina Haidar wanted to get me to the museum to perform provided that I could incorporate live music and some Islamic influence, given that it is an Islamic gallery. My thinktank recommended Bulleh Shah as I felt that Rumi had been overdone. It was thus that we zeroed in on Maati. Yukio Tsuji – a brilliant Japanese composer who I met 2 years ago on another project – agreed to come on board and created a soundtrack with Arabic undertones.


Photo Credit – Ritam Banerjee

We premiered Eternal Embrace in New York as a one-off performance but the response we got was phenomenal. Later, when the Contemporaty Dance Festival at NCPA (Mumbai) asked if we could bring the piece here, Yukio completely reworked the music. As a performer you adjust, maybe not your choreography but your movements to the expanse and liberty offered byt the performing area. This is one of the reasons why the performances at the MET, AF Madras, the NCPA and the ones at open-spaces in Delhi, Ahmedabad and Bangalore are all different from each other.

What are the other projects you are currently working on ?

I’ve got three working projects going on simultaneously. I’m working with a Korean Music ensemble called Noreum Machi along with 3 Carnatic musicians. The head of the Korean group is an accomplished drummer and has a lot of other musical instruments in his group of work. He asked me to come in as a dancer and we just finished a residency in Chennai. Later this year in May, we will have a series of performance – first in Seoul and other Korean cities and then bring them to India in 2018.

Then, I have another project with the Columbia College of Dance in Chicago where two dancers from the US along with two of my dancers will come on board. The choreographer from the US and I will work together on creating a piece. We will start off with giving a  series of workshops to see how the dancers are able to absorb movement.

Photo Credit – Ritam Banerjee

I am also working on a new creation with deaf performers – these are students from the  Sheila Kothawala School for the Deaf in Bangalore. There’s also another project I’m working on with the Swedish choreographer Rani Nair. We have been recording some of my choreographies which were not documented from the 70s and 80s. It is quite amazing to see how much the body remembers when the music is on. And of course the ongoing repertory is still on.  Eternal Embrace is going to be performed in New York and Washington and my work with Manipuri drummers will be put up in Hyderabad, Thane (Mumbai), Chandigarh, Delhi and Kolkata in the next 8 to 10 weeks.

You have collaborated with organisations for the differently-able (such as the Clarke School for the Deaf, Chennai) and for the destitute (such as the Salaam Baalak Trust). In terms of your engagement with social causes, what kind of legacy would you like to leave behind ?

My interest and focus has always been that I work. It would be for others to see if this is a legacy. I still am very charged and there are projects which excite me. With these marginalised groups, I see myself more as a catalyst because there is a lot of talent around. From personal experience I know how difficult it is to have one’s work produced and seen. I help them, not out of pity, but because I am convinced that these people are talented and that their talent needs to be shared. Both of these groups – street children and deaf kids – continue to do workshops within their own communities and become role models which is wonderful. They also remain in touch – via social media for example – and one feels good about that. Whenever I mentor, I do it over a couple of years. It takes time to learn and I demand the best from the people I work with. There is no room for error. If you want to be in this world of performing arts, you have to present yourself as of high quality. It is always very interesting to see the results of this process.

The Other Side. Photo Credit - Ritam Banerjee

Photo Credit – Ritam Banerjee

Siddharth Bhatt

Rédaction, AF Magazine Inde-Népal

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Directeur de publication : Délégation Générale de la Fondation Alliance Française en Inde et au Népal

Rédacteur en chef : Laurent Elisio Bordier

Rédacteur/Coordinateur national : Siddharth Bhatt

Rédacteurs, contributeurs : Guillaume, Abhirami, Alexandre, Chintan, Cléa, David, Eleonore, Elie, Kanika, Karine, Nita, Thomas, Malvika, Marie-Joëlle, Meera, Mayuri, Mitushi, Alice, Prutha, Romain, Ritika, Manas, Supriya ...