On a cold Delhi morning, a few men in a dance studio tucked away in Gol Market’s Natya Ballet Centre, are busy protesting. They are not raising slogans or making speeches. These few men, dressed in t-shirts and loincloths, are dancing.
Astad Deboo, their mentor and the lead dancer of the production, looks on sternly as five young dancers slowly gather momentum along Andalusian classical musician Amina Alaoui’s sonorous voice along with a sparkling flamenco guitar. One sees fluid arm movements and regal stillness. Soon, dressed in a white and blue striped shirt and beige trousers, Deboo joins in, leaving his black shawl with Kashmiri embroidery on the chair, and takes his stance in the centre. Barely stirring at all at first, he begins to move in slow motion, the movements so captive, they are almost trance-like. In a series of structured improvisations, one is drawn in, almost astounded by what he is trying to pursue. The piece is one from the four, which are a part of Unbroken Unbound — Deboo’s recent production that commemorates 150 years of Mahatma Gandhi. The four pieces are based on Gandhi’s four quotes, which come alive in the rehearsals.
“Nothing has saddened me so much in life as the hardness of heart of educated people,” said Mahatma Gandhi once. It was a talisman that resonated with Mumbai-based Deboo, who decided to use it as one of the guiding lights in Unbroken Unbound. “I have been very disappointed with educated people. In my own journey I had a lot of trouble with people telling me what to do and what not to do,” says Deboo, who adds that he wonders what to make of the harshness of people who are well-read, exposed to the world, able to appreciate nuance. “These kind of people really sadden me. They merely observe huge struggles without getting involved. The students are stepping out. Not just students, a lot of people have decided to not be a part of the herd. Unbroken Unbound is my way of showing solidarity with the students on the streets, who are raising their voice,” says Deboo, one of the first few dancers to talk about the ongoing protests. “The dance community hasn’t spoken up like the theatre community or the visual arts community. But they are aware. They may not have because of the political climate,” says Deboo.
Another significant piece in the production is one that talks about inner and outer strength and how the former is what gives more courage. The dancers hold sticks and jump in the air defying gravity. The choreography is beyond technical prowess and show off. It’s evocative and inventive. “Even the weakest can show huge reserves when the need arises. That is because it often comes, not from physical resources but from the will, which can be indomitable in the pursuit of a clearly-defined goal,” mentions Deboo, who adds that the title of the production also represents his 50 years in dance. “My spirit is not broken, though I have dealt with rejection, resentment and more,” says Deboo.
At 72, after half a decade of dancing, Deboo is now reconciling with the changes in his body. “The body is like a machine. As we grow older, we figure out what is breaking down. At the same time you are becoming aware of what your strong points are. I need to see how much can I push my body and push it in a way that I am still able to hold it and not look clumsy,” says Deboo.
Age has also led him to minimalism — from the times when his dance was extremely vigorous to now almost in slow motion. “Being minimal is harder than sort of prancing around. That’s been a gradual dissolve. With a much slower movement, I will take my real time and get you into it. The expression comes but in a very different rhythm,” says Deboo, who in the past has been called out for twirling a bit much. “That comes from my Kathak tradition, not the whirling dervishes as stated sometimes,” says Deboo.
Deboo grew up in a middle-class Parsi family in Kolkata and later Jamshedpur. He learned Kathak in Kolkata since he was six and later moved to Mumbai and graduated in commerce. His father wasn’t keen on Deboo pursuing dance post graduation. So, in 1969, the 22-year-old young rebel boarded a cargo boat alongside many a goat and sheep and hitchhiked his way through Europe to eventually reach New York in 1974. “It wasn’t easy,” says Deboo, but various experiences of dance along the way in London and Iran among others prodded him to move along. Once in New York, he learned the Martha Graham technique at her academy. “It wasn’t for me though. I didn’t respond to it,” says Deboo, who went on to train with German choreographer Pina Bausch in the Wuppertal Dance Company. He returned in 1977 and trained in Kathakali, under Guru E Krishna Panikar.
The training and his own vision of dance culminated into fine productions and collaborations — with puppeteer Dadi Padamjee, a slew of artistes from the Northeast, dhrupad duo Gundecha Brothers, and rock legends Pink Floyd among others. More recently, he worked with rudra veena maestro Bahauddin Dagar. “It’s about the challenge of bringing in another discipline and that really excites me. I am always open to learning,” says Deboo, whose music is a mix of everything — from Persian and Japanese to Indian classical and Andalusian tunes.
For the last 30 years, Deboo has also been working with hearing-impaired dancers. As a teacher, Deboo says, he is extremely strict, like his own teachers were. But with time, he is also not vociferously promoting his work. Deboo hasn’t danced in Kolkata for six years. Delhi saw a performance by him on Saturday after two years. “I want people to see the dance, I just don’t want to market it,” says Deboo, who will present Unbroken Unbound in Bhubaneswar, Jamshedpur and Delhi in the coming months.
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