Celebrated Indian contemporary dancer and choreographer Astad Deboo on his 50-year career, hitchhiking across the world and more
Article by Samira Sood | CNN Traveller
Astad Deboo in flow. Photo: Amit Kumar
Astad Deboo is no stranger to accolades: from a Sangeet Natak Akademi award to a Padma Shri, he has them all. But perhaps his greatest prize is his own story. How did the boy from Jamshedpur go on to become the pioneer of modern dance in India?
8 years, 32 countries. Feat. a cargo boat ride with goats
“Around the time I was finishing my undergrad degree in commerce and economics in Mumbai, in 1969, a school friend from Jamshedpur had just returned after hitchhiking across Europe. I was inspired, so I mustered the courage to approach my father and tell him I’d like to do the same—and slipped in that I had got admission to study dance at the Martha Graham School in New York (I also lied that I had a scholarship). One of the many good things about my parents was that if you took the initiative, they weighed the pros and cons and made their decision. So, I left home with a grand sum of US$300—and that’s the last time I ever took from my parents.
Photo: Amit Kumar
In those days, the RBI allowed you to go as a labourer to the Gulf by sea. I got on a cargo boat to the port of Khorramshahr in Iran. It was very hot and I had goats for company, but the journey was wonderful. I remember being fascinated by the mountains of Oman, the detour in Basra. My first night in Khorramshahr was at a gurudwara, and then I began hitchhiking: Iran, Turkey, Greece, Austria, Germany, Switzerland. At a party, I met an Iranian pop singer who was learning the sitar from Ravi Shankar. He offered me a half-hour slot on his show, for which I was paid US$50 (my first pay ever) and given a certificate. I tried similar things wherever I went: I’d approach the Indian students’ committees and associations at colleges and offer to perform.
While in London waiting for my paperwork to come through for the US, I started giving Kathak classes in exchange for studying dance at The Place in London, which was teaching the Martha Graham method. But within three months, I realised that this was not for me. So I decided to travel more, but with a purpose, not for the sake of it. I wanted to see other dance and performing art forms—ballet, kabuki theatre, folk dances, the works—and really immerse myself in them, not just watch a show and come back. I hitchhiked, took cheap charter flights and boats, taught classes in exchange for learning different kinds of dance, like Afro jazz, as well as cash, and managed to travel across Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, Vietnam (during the war, which was a real eye-opener), Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines; I stayed a year in South America. In Japan, I also taught English and became a fashion model.”
With a little help from my friends (and strangers)
“In the US, I had quite a few school friends, but otherwise, I’d stay at youth hostels. I was also lucky to meet a number of extremely generous people who would then invite me to stay with them. There were some surprises, too. Like in Rio, I’d gone to the carnival and met a Russian ballet teacher who invited me to teach a few classes, and subsequently, met a lady who was fascinated by my work and invited me to stay with her; she turned out to be the daughter of a former president of Brazil. When I was going to Buenos Aires, a friend had put me in touch with someone who also turned out to be a former Argentinian president’s daughter. A lady who picked me up in Australia in 1973 became a lifelong friend, right up until she passed away in 2000. These relationships I forged also helped me later, because I started getting invited to perform in different countries.”
Photo: Amit Kumar
Shocking the Indian audience
“After about three and a half years, I returned to Jamshedpur for my sister’s wedding, and stayed for about four months, sorting out my US visa paperwork. That was when I began to study Kathakali as well. Guru Krishna Panicker was one of the few classical dance teachers who was open to experiments with contemporary dance, so he taught me two pieces. Later, when I returned to Mumbai in 1977 (thanks to my parents’ emotional blackmail), in addition to taking Kathakali lessons again for a few years, I started doing solo shows. Prithvi Theatre opened in 1978 and Little Theatre at the NCPA, soon after. The Max Mueller Bhavans in different cities were very supportive. Pina Bausch came in 1979 and said she wanted to watch some Indian dancers. The director of Max Mueller Bhavan recommended me, and she subsequently invited me to join her and collaborate with her. For me, it was like, whoa, Pina Bausch! That was a big feather in my cap.
My audiences in India were a mixed lot. Some were quite enlightened and culturally well exposed, others found my shows shocking or confusing. Sometimes people were a bit shocked to see me wearing a leotard, for example, but it didn’t bother me.”
Dancing to sign language
“After a few years in India, I had started feeling creatively frustrated. I wanted to choreograph an ensemble, but traditional classical dancers, though very keen, were afraid of being rusticated by their gurus. I knew of this deaf theatre company in Kolkata, where the artistic director was a friend, so I asked if I could do a workshop with the kids. I hadn’t done this before, but it was an interesting idea. I started off with short workshops of a few days, but eventually, I choreographed a full-length work with them. At the time, someone I knew was teaching at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, the world’s largest university for the deaf, and through him, I got the opportunity to work there for a few months every year as artist in residence, curator and choreographer. With The Clarke School for the Deaf in Chennai, I’ve done over 70 shows, including opening the Deaflympics in Melbourne, shows in Granada, Singapore and at Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi.
It’s been a huge learning experience for me, how to teach and communicate in different ways. I had to make sure my lips were clearly visible so the kids could lip read, which also made me more conscious of how I presented myself. My Kolkata kids were taught American Sign Language, because the lady who started it had a deaf daughter so she went to America to learn. I can spell in ASL and sign a few other cues, but then in England, the signing is different, in Australia it’s different.”
Photo: Amit Kumar
Pink Floyd who?
“It’s been 50 years on the professional stage, and I’ve had some fantastic times. In 1969, Winston Churchill’s granddaughter, Arabella, was doing a fundraiser for leprosy patients in Africa and India. One of the girls I had hitchhiked with was working for her, so she recommended me. That time, I was still doing mainly Kathak. In the middle of the sound and light check, Arabella suggested I jam with Pink Floyd, so we did. But I had no idea who they were!
Then, when I was in Sydney way back in the ’70s, the Sydney Opera House was on the verge of being set up, and they were auditioning for its opening opera. I tried out and was selected to be the lead dancer! That was really special. Slowly, I gained some acceptance from the more traditional institutions in India as well—being invited to the Khajuraho Dance Festival was a big deal because it was primarily an Indian classical dance festival. Receiving the Sangeet Natak Akademi award and Padma Shri and, last year, a lifetime achievement award from a prestigious and very traditional Indian classical sabha in Chennai, was also gratifying.”
At 72, I’m still travelling all over the world. But now I am particular about hotels and flights!
“I’ll be 72 in July. In the next few months, I’m going to Imphal, Munich, Chicago and the Hague. I’m not a fussy traveller and I really enjoy my food. I guess that’s partly why I’ve been able to enjoy my trips so much. But I am a bit particular about where I’m staying now, and most of my sponsors and organisers do fly me business class. I think that’s okay, I’ve earned that much.”