Contemporary dancer Astad Deboo on his latest work and going solo
The scenario has changed. The floodgates have opened all of a sudden.
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On what keeps him going to create, collaborate, perform and teach in an environment not entirely supportive of contemporary dance:
Sometimes I feel that if this city or country is not... not that they are not open, but I do get frustrated.
I feel very strongly about my work. There is still a fire in the belly. Maybe it is a very restless or active mind, you can put it in either category. The interaction with young dancers is very refreshing. A lot of them want to talk to me of my own experiences. I am curious to know what they are doing.
The scenario has changed. The floodgates have opened all of a sudden. You see so many dancers. With social media, you get a feel of what each one’s doing. However, sometimes I feel that what I see is very repetitive.
These days you also have to be careful because kids are not open to take suggestions.
The various projects I do keep me proactive creatively, thinking in different directions.
On Eternal Embrace, his first full-length solo in India after over a decade:
When one creates, the artist goes through various ideas and thoughts, and for a very long time, especially in India, I was inspired to create works with groups such as with members of the hearing-impaired community, the street children belonging to the NGO Salaam Balak Trust in Delhi, and my long association with the performing groups of Manipur - starting with the thang-ta practitioners and then the drummers.Astad Deboo is a pioneer of Indian contemporary dance.
Eternal Embrace is the first full-length solo in India after almost a decade. I have enjoyed it so much because of the fact that when you are choreographing a group which is not familiar [with your style], it takes so much more time.
The process is very important for me. With solo it is a different approach. My previous solos were always on recorded music. I have collaborated with Gundecha Brothers, Shubha Mudgal, Sivamani and Louis Banks to name a few, but with this I have a collaborator in Yukio Tsuji, a well-known composer as well as practitioner of shakuhachi, the Japanese flute based in New York, with me 24X7.
For the last 26 years, on January 1, I dance at the festival organised by Sahmat, an organisation named after Safdar Hashmi, the theatre director-activist.
Each year there is a different theme and one creates a work based on the theme. I was aware of Rumi and knew that lots of dancers had taken Rumi's poems. So I wasn’t keen on working on a dance based on Rumi. I asked Sohail Hashmi, the late Safdar's brother, and Anis Azmi, another scholar of Islamic poetry and literature, to suggest another poet. Sohail sent me poems of Bulleh Shah. I selected Maati from the lot.
I am very nervous and curious for this new creation of mine...
The attention span of today’s audience is very low. This is a 60-minute non-stop solo and a lot of the work is minimal. You have to really concentrate. What I know will compensate though is the music. Yukio has worked really hard. We have exchanged a lot of emails and he says: "Nobody has ever made me work so intently as you have."
On believing and practising the maxim: Stillness is the move:
I definitely believe in that. I have seen that even through the great Butoh masters in Japan. The initial seed really began by looking at Butoh [Japanese dance theatre form] and spending time, however little, with its practitioners.
When I started in the early 1970s, even I did splits and jumped around. But through the decades, the body changes and movements evolve. I can still run around and roll, but it is not something I want to do because I feel I have done it.When one creates, the artist goes through various ideas and thoughts.
One continues to work. People say you must not be rehearsing now. It is not true because the body is a machine and you have to keep your joints and movements going. I’m very conscious of the fact that I’m still performing. You cannot get up and say, "I’m going to do this."
Keeping the body in shape and flexible is important. I try to see how much longer can I stay, how minimal can I move from time to time.
It is much more difficult to do what I am doing now – there is a lot of concentration and control. I’ve discovered my body doing this solo work by pushing for certain movements. These surprises are good surprises for me.
On not leaving behind a legacy:
My technique is very difficult to teach. My whirling is very different from the Sufi practitioners. It takes a different kind of momentum. The rasas are deeply embedded in me.
There are elements of Kathakali which adds another dimension which is more theatrical but simultaneously not in your face. I’m inspired by Butoh. It makes many people ask me, "Aap mime artist hai kya?" I say no. I’m looking at mime from a European point of view, but I’m a dancer foremost.
People whom I have mentored for a few years are able to assimilate my technique into their movements. It is interesting to see them replicate it in their own way and that’s the way it should be. I’m not proprietary about it. I can’t see myself opening a school. It is a great responsibility.
(Astad Deboo is a pioneer of Indian contemporary dance who has created over 70 works in a career spanning over 45 years. He will tour with Eternal Embrace to Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru and Ahmedabad in December.)