Astad Deboo is a maverick dancer. His 67th birthday falls on 13 July 2014. Over the years he has dodged neat categories and continues to explore new frontiers with his individualistic style. Minimalism, restraint and innovation have emerged as signature features of his choreography. Having worked extensively with different groups of performers, he was in Delhi recently with Rhythm Divine a performance with Thang-ta performers from Manipur. In this freewheeling conversation he reflects on his journey through the various rhythms of life and performance.
What was the inspiration for Rhythm Divine? How did the concept originate and how did you go about creating it?
I have been working with performers in Manipur for the past ten years. We started working with their living traditions and techniques and introducing layers of playfulness and interaction. I would respond to their rhythm, they would follow my movement, and so on. We keep changing the choreography, developing new works and revisiting earlier ones.
Are the volatile political conditions of Manipur expressed in the bodies and movements of the dancers? Was there any engagement with that during the creation of the piece?
Maybe not directly in terms of theme and content, but it is part of their experience. We worked a lot with rhythm – there are different levels of hostility, suspiciousness in their silences, their cries. They usually perform in a completely different context, mostly as ritual, in temple environs, but not on stage. So the work takes on a different meaning when it is taken into a new context.
What made you break away from your initial training in Kathak and Kathakali, to explore something different?
I wanted to find my own expression, to explore and express my individuality. I think it is very important for dancers today as well to gain greater exposure and pursue higher education in dance.
How has your style evolved over the years?
While I was in London, I discovered that my body is an ‘Indian body’. For instance, in Indian dance the body is mostly grounded — there are bends; it is never straight. The rasas are very important, the face and eyes are integral aspects. There are many such qualities and of course these are ingrained in my body. It comes through in my style. I assimilated into my body a variety of techniques and experiences which have influenced my dance. Over time I have realised that minimalism is beautiful. It is much more difficult. As you grow older, you discover something different, sometimes even in the same movement. At the same time your own approach becomes more and more internalised. Time has been a major influence.
What was your experience of working with Pina Bausch?
Pina Bausch mentored me. It was very intense. It was a wonderful experience to be in the company of so many different styles and to observe how she worked with them. While creating a work she would ask us questions, give us situations, we would think and express ourselves in different ways.
What was the search that drove you to explore a new dance vocabulary for yourself and to start choreographing?
I wanted to create and show my own work. When I returned to India, I found there was no openness, hardly any receptivity. So I started working on my own. My earlier work was very fast-paced, sometimes very dark. A lot of it expressed the frustration I was facing in terms of finding adequate support and platforms for my work. In the earlier days there was also the pressure to prove myself, sometimes to justify the funding. I think it is also important to cultivate and educate audiences so that performers can have spaces for exploration and trying out new things. There weren’t many opportunities at the time I was starting out with my choreographies.
What are the major challenges you face as a dancer-choreographer today?
Funding and support! Even today I have to create my own platforms and generate resources.
The kind of style you have developed over time is unique. In terms of pedagogy, how do you plan to pass it on to the next generation of dancers?
I don’t take classes. I work with groups of people and mentor them. In their work you may notice phrases and techniques they have picked up from me and integrated with their expression. But basically, mine is a very individualistic style which will probably die with me. And that’s all right. I don’t think there is any need to be possessive. If you want to branch out, it is important to share, it is nice to let people go.
What are your reflections on the ‘contemporary’ in the context of dance in India?
The word ‘contemporary’ is so blasphemously used. There is lack of process, hardly any institutions for this. Often the training provided arms the body but real meaningful work takes time to evolve. I notice there are performers trained in classical dance who are doing interesting work. What is required is more exposure and education.
What are your upcoming projects?
For the next few years I want to focus on my ongoing work of mentoring hearing impaired performers. I would also like to continue working in Manipur with a group of eight to 14 performers and create more works with them.