Astad Deboo
Recipient of prestigious awards such as the Sangeet Natak Akademi award (1995) and the Padma Shri (2007), Astad Deboo’s name paves the way for contemporary and modern dance in India. Trained in classical dance and performing art forms such as Kathak and Kathakali, Astad Deboo went on to discover his own style. In the mid-sixties, while he was in Mumbai studying Economics, he happened to see a modern dance performance by Murray Louis. That did the trick for him. He packed his bags and hitchhiked his way through Europe and in the process studied the Martha Graham technique in London. Over the years he exposed himself to a variety of dance forms in different countries and started showcasing his solo work. He went on to collaborate with people like Pink Floyd, the Gundecha brothers, with Pina Bausch of the Wuppertal Dance Company, Germany and more recently with the Tang-ta dancers of Manipur.

A veritable globe trekker, Astad has soaked in a multitude of experiences, not to mention the music and has given performances at places such as the Great Wall of China. He also has considerable experience in working with deaf actors and has work shopped with them in India, in the US, in Mexico and in Hong Kong. He puts together his own training programs and has been a visiting faculty to dance schools abroad. Besides having choreographed for films like Omkara and Meenakshi, Astad has also contributed to the theatre.

In fact his is a dance theatre that has explored the infinite possibilities of body and space. His unique style is evident in productions like ‘Celebration’ wherein he combines the discipline of the Tang-ta with his own vision of a world, which can be beautiful and violent at the same time. His classical training is infused with a new idiom as he explores every millisecond of his mudras. Talking to Mumbai Theatre Guide, Astad speaks of his dance theatre, of his connection with theatre people like Satyadev Dubey and on the impact that dance or more significantly, movement can have on an actor’s performance.

 Deepa Punjani

Congratulations Astad. An obvious question follows. How do you feel about being awarded the PadmaShri?
I feel good, good about it; in a sense vindicated also. The fact is that people have been aware of the range of my work and also I have been on the scene for the last 28 years, on and off. Also let’s say that under the umbrella of contemporary dance in India, this is also the first but I am not looking at first or second. When I truly started my journey as a dancer, after living abroad, I initiated the movement of contemporary dance in our country and for over a decade and a half I have been a lone wolf, an enfant terrible. But I feel good about having merited the award. I didn’t lobby for it. I used to feel a little bad when a lot of junior dancers than me got the award and showed attitude. But it wasn’t in me to lobby even when a powerful dancer from Delhi suggested that I do it. I have my dignity and so it was out of the question to do so.

But is it always a question of ‘lobbying’ for the award or is it because the field of contemporary dance is not so recognized in India?
Contemporary dance has come to be recognized. Government bodies whether it is the Sangeet Natak Akademi or the Ministry of Culture or the ICCR- all these people have accepted it. I would rather think that it is this whole scenario in Chennai, which is limiting in its acceptance. Chennai has its problems with the presenters. They feel that they are not going to have an audience for modern dance performances, which is actually not true. Sure we’re talking of a minority when you compare with genres such as English theatre or even Hindi theatre or Indian classical music or pop music. See we have to be realistic. We’re not going to expect those kind of numbers to come and watch a contemporary dance performance. Even in Mumbai dance has always been on the lowest rung of priority for the people.

Really! I thought it is we theatre people who complain about not getting enough audiences…
(Laughs) No…no it is dance. When have you heard of regular dance performances? I am not talking of those that take place at venues like the Nehru centre or the Birla auditorium. What you do get to see a lot these days is the MTV influenced dance or now even dance classes such as ballroom and salsa have become popular. But you don’t really see these people do performance after performance.

Would you at least say that perhaps there is a larger audience for classical dance performances?
Classical dance does have more of a platform. One does get to see festivals of classical dance at venues like the Shanmukhananda but it is tough for them also to fill auditoriums.

You also must find it difficult to perform in Mumbai. I don’t think you have had many shows here.
It’s a catch 22 situation for me. Yes I find it tough to present my own self. To begin with I work six months in advance and sometimes longer. For instance I am already working on something, which is slated for 2009. So if I ask someone in India- can we look into October and they say it’s too soon; we can’t really give you dates now and that sort of complicates things. Somewhere this attitude boils down to priorities. For me it is essential to get a sponsor so that I can plan things accordingly.

So you’re saying that you would rather want to expend your creative energy in putting the show together as against producing it?
No I am not saying that. A lot of my work has been solo. When I am creating something, I do go out to look for funds or when I am dealing with groups from outside Mumbai, I do make arrangements that are integral to the production. But it just so happens that I am able to sell my work. There are people from overseas who’re interested in what I am doing and I get commissioned. To give you an example- I have already been approached by the Hong Kong Arts Festival Committee for their program in 2009. On this project I am going to work with a company called the Theatre of Silence. I have done few workshops with them in the past.

How would you describe your kind of dance theatre? Does it have a definitive story or is it abstract?
It varies from production to production. In a piece like ‘Insomnia’ or ‘Broken Being’ for instance a story is evident but my productions have also included abstract pieces. Again with my collaborations like ‘Celebration’, I absorb the unique technique (in this case it concerns the martial art form of Tang-ta) to narrate an experience. In ‘Celebration’ you find that tradition joins the contemporary. There again one may find it abstract but I have attempted to show the technique in its pure form. The result is that I have been able to imbibe my body vocabulary with their form because they are so flexible. They have been able to assimilate the work like the work I did with deaf actors called ‘Contraposition’. This piece explored the nine rasas and everything in this instance worked on counts and the small stories that I created for the actors. These stories were necessary for the actors to feel and to emote while performing. So you had an expression of nine emotions through these stories.

Dance and Theatre, while they may borrow from each other are two distinct performing art forms. But in your experience do you feel that there is a dichotomy between them? Or more significantly how do you see your performers? Do you see them as dancers or actors first?
Well I have used actors in pieces that I have choreographed. Years ago I worked with Sunil Shanbag’s actors. The actors danced. In my work, you have to be comfortable with wearing new hats. You don’t remain just an actor or a dancer. Sure I have faced limitations in the sense that a lot of actors were not able to dance but then I wove my choreography in a way that each actor was comfortable. The difference was immediately visible. The actors walked in with panache and I do feel that actors can gain from such an experience. Actors need to understand movement to do away with their awkwardness on stage. But it is not easy to integrate movement because actors are generally more comfortable just speaking their lines. My choreography then takes a different turn as against if I had to do the same thing with dancers. Dancers after all do have the body vocabulary that is required. But if I feel that my production requires an actor then an actor it has to be. I am open to experimentation.

Yes I did read somewhere that you have worked with Sunil. If I am not mistaken you are also quite friendly to theatre people like Satyadev Dubey and Ramu Ramanathan.
Satyadev was the first to give me a break in Mumbai, when I performed under his Theatre Unit. It was at Prithvi theatre with Jennifer Kendall. After eight years of travel when I returned to Mumbai I was also onto an inner search and Satyadev has been really there. He has played a pivotal role in my life. A lot many times when I want to discuss ideas I go to him. He is knowledgeable about so many stories and myths. So I am always sort of bouncing off my ideas with him. So he and Sunil Shanbag and Ramu to a certain extent now are like my think-tank. I remember years back when I was asked to perform at the Khajurao festival. The condition was that I base my performance on one of the temple stories or on the work done by the poets of Madhya Pradesh. So I asked Satyadev his opinion and he said why don’t you look at Muktibodh and he gave me a couple of poems. There was one poem called Lakdi Ka Ravan where I juxtapose a politician to Ravan and was thus able to bring in a political interpretation. Again when I collaborated with the puppeteer Dadi Padamjee, Satyadev gave me a lot of ideas. And Sunil too has always been there. He has filmed my work with the deaf and the more recent one is called ‘The Sword and The Spear’. Sunil has been there right since 1978 and another very important person in my life and my work has been my set designer Ratan J. Batliboi who is well-known on the Mumbai theatre scene. These people, they have all traveled with my ups and downs.

Have you any plans to collaborate with more theatre people?
I am open to collaborations. But I need to be excited by the theme, with the project that one has been asked to work upon. For a long time I haven’t worked with actors per se.

Even if dance is not an integral part of all theatre productions, its theories have been greatly influential in aiding the actor's craft. Our own Natyashastra is a striking example of dance theories that have been extended to acting. How essential is training in dance or movement for an actor?
It is important as I said earlier for the actor to be comfortable with movement. S/he need not be necessarily trained in any dance technique but they have to internalize movement. I have said it in the past and even now I am saying that I am open to holding workshops for actors but it has to be an intensive workshop. Someone has to take the effort to organize such a workshop. Also we don’t have very many instances of collaborative efforts between theatre and dance practitioners. Not many dancers have been open to the exploration of movement. I remember offering my services to the National School of Drama (NSD) but there again they have their own politics. I mean I could easily be going there and doing a course for them but there is no initiative. A certain amount of such body vocabulary is definitely going to help the actor. It’s not like it is going to detract him/her in any way! Such ancillary classes help, whether it is dance/movement or martial art.

What kind of methodology have you developed in your training with deaf actors?
Whether the person is an actor or a dancer or whether s/he hears clearly or is deaf, I start off on a counting, rhythmic pattern like its one…two…three…eight. Now this count has to be internalized and it has to be so internalized that when I say ‘eight’, the person should know the beat that I want. Another important aspect of my training is that I try and do away with inhibitions and to that extent I have found our people to be inhibitive. I recall a workshop that I did for Mohan Agashe’s actors in Pune. During one sequence of the workshop I wanted just two actors-male/female or two males or two females. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that I wanted them to be as close to each other as possible to convey a sense of oneness and the response I got was ‘kaay trass deto?’ – why are you hassling us? The other thing that I do is to make the actor-dancer be aware of the space in which they are. A performance can be located anywhere or it can be site specific. In a school auditorium in Calcutta there were large French windows and I told the actors to work within that space. As time goes on, other inputs start pouring in. I believe in throwing ideas to my actors to see what can emerge from them. This is beneficial especially when I am collaborating with a dance or movement technique that is not mine. I base my choreography on their technique and then I take it on from there. It’s a long process; there are workshops that one begins with and even when the work has been created after having worked on it for a year, the re-creation process is on. There are instances when my actors decide to show me something that they haven’t shown earlier and if it is good it is incorporated. A new actor may bring in his/her talent and that too becomes an add on.

According to your experience do you feel it is easier for a dancer to become an actor than the other way round?
It’s all a question of mindset. I have acted in theatre productions myself. I am not saying it has to be the lead role. I have done two productions in London- RITA’S JIGSAW, which was written by Meera Sayal and FILM FILM FILM, which was written by Farokh Dhondy. I played cameo roles such as those of a servant, a eunuch, a blind man. So there is no hard and fast rule. Dancers can be actors too and about the question of actors being dancers-it’s a long call but not impossible.

Which according to you is the best Indian theatre production that you have seen in recent times?
COTTON 56, POLYESTER 84. I was excited by the writing and it may perhaps seem that I am partial to theatre people like Ramu and Sunil.

Interestingly enough these theatre people like you are interested in the exploration of space. Their reasons may be more practical when compared to yours but the desire is there.
Yes that is true. I must say that I am not averse to the work of other theatre people, like I appreciated the work that the theatre group Rage did when it put together 36 GHANTE. There were bits I liked. Again I wish to see more but my visits to the city are infrequent. I have a leaning towards Hindi and Marathi theatre, Hindi more perhaps because I don’t understand Marathi well.

Is it possible for an actor to pick up a dance technique much later in his/her life?
Age is a bar. Fitness and flexibility levels need to be taken into account too. Say if a person has never exercised, it is going to be difficult but it is possible nevertheless. However the technique can’t just be picked up. It needs to be studied. The actor has to train. It’s a question of attitude. Raising your right hand and your left leg doesn’t mean it is modern dance. There is an education, a foundation behind it and if you didn’t know your alphabets, how would you be able to formulate sentences? So it is with dance. An actor can dance but it is ultimately up to his/her commitment and talent.

*The interviewer is Editor of this site, a theatre critic and an academic keenly interested in Theatre and Performance Studies.

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