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Astad Deboo could shock tradition, and yet remain open to collaborations

Astad Deboo could break free of the stage, and do a tandav on the Great Wall of China. He was a citizen of the world, and he brought it home.

Written by Ramu Ramanathan |
Updated: December 14, 2020 8:58:00 am
At the drop of the hat, he would dance in people’s homes, pubs and streets. He continued to do that even later. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

We were to meet in Navsari in 2019. I was pottering about in Dandi-Bardoli. Astad Deboo had to attend a wedding: “My second cousin’s daughter who is also getting married to my second cousin. One from my father’s side and the other one from my mother’s side.” Astad hadn’t been to Navsari, his birthplace, in ages. It is my “home”, the modern Marco Polo used to say with a chuckle. His father worked with the Tatas. And so, he was initiated into dance education at the age of six in the steel town of Jamshedpur. The teacher taught Kathak, so that’s what Astad learnt.

In the Sixties, he shifted to Mumbai. He attended a Murray Louis performance, which was touring India. Louis’s technique and attention to physicality impressed him. It questioned the basics of dance. After the performance, Astad returned home and stood before his favourite mirror, and stretched his body like the American dancers.

After graduating from the University of Bombay, Astad travelled across Europe to nurture “the seed of dance that had been planted”. He dabbled in his share of mischief. He ate a posh meal in a restaurant and ran away without paying his cheque, performed a 30-minute show on Tehran TV for a bit of finance. At the drop of the hat, he would dance in people’s homes, pubs and streets. He continued to do that even later. I’ve seen him dance at the St Xavier’s college courtyard, CST railway station and in the NGMA in Mumbai.

These were not gimmicks. He said, “I’m weary of prosceniums. Of the traditional stage which reduces all formations to frontal viewing.” And so, he performed at Champaner (on 40-feet-high fort walls) and Chandigarh (in a pool of water). And, of course, the “Astad tandava mudra” on top of the Great Wall of China. In today’s times, it would be an Insta moment. He said it was a simple show. “A friend and me had a portable music system, a few props and my costume. We would walk. Identify a performance-site. Ready ourselves and perform. This went for a few hours. The audiences were receptive and the feedback was super.”

In all this, the question that popped up in my head was: Will the real Astad Deboo please stand up? Theatre director Sunil Shanbag, who has collaborated with Astad, said, “In Indian mythology we have Trishanku, a character who is forever suspended between two worlds, not fully accepted in either. India, on one hand, and the West, on the other. It was a cause of some anxiety.”

I used to meet Astad at his home to watch dance videos from across the world. It was my PhD dissertation in dance. Delicious insights about how the masters rehearsed for a show. Be it Pina Bausch or William Forsythe. Equally precious, the stories about cutting-edge work in East Europe and Brazil and Indonesia. He used to say, “Dance choreography is like composing music. Any artist that exactly knows what is going to happen on the stage is not creating much.”

Once I asked him about his approach. He replied, “In my work of dance, I try to take parts of our existing vocabulary of Indian classical dance and combine it with other forms. But such a thing is viewed with scepticism.” But when Astad began his dance performances, he chose story-like narratives. He created an audience for his work in India. Much later, he introduced the “abstract” element and experimented with music, with puppets, with various themes. He would point to an aha moment in a video and say, “Our biggest tragedy is we have not realised the full potential of the human body.”

In 2001, I requested him to choreograph a play I directed: Angst Angst Coonth Coonth Boom Bam Dhandal Dhamal Kaput. The play was triggered by a line from a Jose Saramago novel. There is a traffic jam which mutates into a permanent jam — and the bottleneck transforms itself into a municipality of four-wheelers. We used to rehearse at the Mumbai University Kalina campus. One morning, Astad arrived. I said, “We will do a run through so you know what we are trying to do.” Okay, he said. We began. Halfway through the rehearsal, Astad had dozed off. The actors started chuckling. To be fair to Astad, he had culminated a 17-city tour and landed in Mumbai at 3 am.

Momentary pause. Astad started working with the actors. Basic improvs and rudimentary hip hop and cha-cha-cha. The team realised two things, dance is exhausting, very exhausting. And just like the brain has intelligence, the physical body has an intelligence which we are cavalier about.

After the rehearsal, we walked to the station. And that’s the other thing I remember: Astad was the ultimate flaneur. He loved to say, “Walking is something money can’t buy”. As we were waiting for the train on the platform, he gave me one of those life lessons. “You see all this chaos. All the hustle-bustle. The trains coming and going.” I nodded. “Remember one thing, structure is freedom.”

He collaborated and joined hands, with theatre directors, musicians and painters. There was a certain degree of openness. Once, I got a call from a strange foreign number. It was Astad. What do you know about Hamlet’s father? Absolutely nothing, I replied. Call disconnected. Later I learnt, Astad was working with the Korean theatre director Hyoung-Taek Limb. He had to play Hamlet’s father, the ghost, as well as the head of the clowns. Other than Shakespeare, Astad worked with texts by Bulleh Shah, Tagore and Manto.

Here, I must mention his collaboration (and friendship) with the Gundecha brothers. Until then, Hindustani classical was not an integral part of Astad’s conceptualisation. As he said, “I had neither context nor reference point. Furthermore, I was not keen to use it, merely because the sitar or the tabla was the in-thing. I found the alaaps too long; and the traditionalists were mortified whenever I chopped bits.”

Astad heard a recital by the Gundecha brothers in Bhopal. The Dhrupad gayaki was stirring. He introduced himself, and broached the possibility of working together. Soon enough, he was invited to perform at the Khajuraho Dance Festival. On Satyadev Dubey’s advice, he performed Muktibodh’s Lakdi Ka Ravana. Stanzas from the poem were read out. The Gundecha brothers sang. And Astad danced.

I recall this show vividly. The backstage team had been converted into Black Cats with AK-47s. Astad made a dramatic entry, getting off a lal-batti-topped official car, and strutted in with the customary fanfare one associates with a minister. On stage, he oozed self-importance and vanity, but then started disrobing an assortment of garments, which symbolised the tiers in our society. And in the end: Stillness. That’s all I remember. The exhaustion, the pain, the helplessness. Maybe this world is another planet’s hell.

He had no place he could call his home/He was a citizen of the world/He had no address/He was a visitor on this planet/He was merely passing through/ In the hope that he would befriend someone, anyone/On this trip/And dance!/Cause that’s the only thing he knew to do

This article first appeared in the print edition on December 14, 2020 under the title ‘Dance like Astad’. The writer is a playwright, who lives in Kharvel village in south Gujarat

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