Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Astad Deboo: The Dancing Vagabond

There sits a man, all of 64 years, in his white splendour. At about five feet seven inches tall, despite his age, he holds himself with the same vitality he’s always had since the dawn of his career in the 70s.

Published by  Express News Service ,

Astad Deboo is a household name that ‘strikes a pose’ in the minds of dancers across India. Considered the father of sorts of contemporary Indian dance, he has developed a vocabulary of his own that combines the intricacies of space, suspended body movements and exceptional muscle control, all blended together by a lilting background score.

Coming to Hyderabad for the first time in his 42-year career that spans across 65 countries, five continents and innumerable performances and collaborations, the Padma Shri awardee was here as part of the eighth Krishnakriti annual festival of arts and culture, hosted by the Kalakriti art gallery.

The Beginning

Astad Deboo began his tryst with dance as a Kathak dancer under Guru Prahlad Das in Kolkata. “Arts was in the family. My mother was a veena player and also keen on music and dance. While Kathak has come to be an integral part of my routine now, back then, learning it wasn’t that easy, especially because my guru, being more traditional, sort of shunned me when he realised I was into contemporary dance and didn’t want much to do with me,” he recalls.

After picking his way around the globe and in the process picking up a miscellaneous dance and martial art forms, Deboo took to Kathakali under the guidance of Guru E Krishna Panikar, even performing with him at the Guruvayur temple in Thrissur, Kerala.

“A dance critic Sunil Kothari suggested perhaps learning Kathakali would be ideal for me. I was a bit of a dramatic guy but Kathakali taught me control over those emotions. This was where I picked up dancing on the side of my feet,” he says.

The Vagabond

“I was 21 when I got on a cargo ship. Back then, to leave the country one needed permission from the government to set foot out. Unless you were a labourer and were willing to travel at the lowest low of the ship gentry — with the goats and chickens. A senior of mine had just hitch-hiked his way around Europe and come back. I took inspiration from that because I wanted to study at the Martha Graham Centre of Contemporary Dance in New York,” he explains. And thus began his never-ending journey to the seas and beyond. Deboo travelled for two months, crossing Europe to finally reach London where he would bunk for the next year. It was here, while volunteering for a fundraiser that he got the opportunity for one of his first major acts.

“Pink Floyd was performing and I was one of the volunteers. In the scheme of things I ended up performing for them,” he recalls, reliving the moment. He later travelled to HongKong, Korea, Thailand, Canada, Papua New Guniea, Africa and Manila, to name a few places. Also not to forget USA, where he finally landed eight years after he set out to enroll himself at Martha Graham’s school. Ask him if there’s a country that he hasn’t been to, he replies with an impish smile, “Well I’ve only been to 65 countries.”

The Dancer

Astad Deboo is a man with not too many pretensions. His dance is a personification of his belief in simplicity. “Minimalistic is the key word. Dance is about expression and that is not limited by anything. Hence any space given to me is still enough space. There was this one time that I had eight dancers standing on a bench about three and a half feet long, with no one falling or being pushed off.”

Deboo’s favourite challenges are limited spaces and intertwining his dances around that space with as much fluidity as restriction. “We never dealt with the abstract earlier. But contemporary dance is all about creating a new dimension, and we have done that.”

It took this Sangeet Natak Akademi award winner six to seven years to even be considered seriously when he started his career. “People had never seen a style so bare in its construction and it was hard for them to accept it. But the media did play quite a role in changing things around,” he points out. Over the years, Deboo has re-invented himself as his body aged and his movements changed. “It’s important to constantly re-invent yourself. I can’t do the things I used to do. But the trick is to work around it.” The dancer is also a fan of Drupad music, which becomes evident as one follows his work. “Music should move you. For me Drupad music extends my body movements,” he observes.

The Spiritual

Deboo has had an interesting journey thus far. A Zoroastrian by birth, brought up in a largely Hindu society and educated in a Catholic school, his beliefs and spirituality are a motley mix of what can truly be considered contemporary. Yet deep down, he still holds true to his religion.

While most accomplished people, especially in the line of dance, struggle to accept the changes that life brings, particularly lesser body flexibility, Astad seems to have just gone with the flow and the rhythm of life. “It isn’t difficult for me, just more challenging. I’ve re-invented myself quite a few times over the years depending on how I can handle and manage my body. It is work, but it’s my passion. Besides, I’m still young,” he chuckles.

Quite obvious it might seem as one watches him move to his own tune.

Astad Deboo performed at Taramati Baradari on Sunday evening and also conducted a workshop for amateurs and dancers at the Vidyaranya school on Monday.