Astad Deboo: 'Our culture today revolves around Bollywood; there are hardly any viewers for art'

At the ongoing Contemporary Dance Season 2016 at the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai, Padma Shri Astad Deboo — Sangeet Natak Akademi award winner for creative dance and a pioneer of modern dance in India — is all set to mesmerise the audience with ‘Eternal Embrace’, the original score for which has been composed by Yukio Tsuji, Japanese composer and performer. An ingenious contemporary dancer, Deboo, uses his training in Kathak and Kathakali to create a dance form that is unique to him.

In an interview with Firstpost, Deboo talks about his experience of working with the hearing impaired, how a solo performance transforms entirely when revisited with a group, and his new composition. Excerpts from the conversation:

 Astad Deboo: Our culture today revolves around Bollywood; there are hardly any viewers for art

Padma Shri Astad Deboo. Image courtesy: Facebook

Being a contemporary dancer in India…

With contemporary dance, it is very difficult to survive in the Indian scenario. Indian audiences look for only entertainment and that means Bollywood. Two years ago I was dancing in Vancouver and a Japanese dancer came up to me and said “Do you know what the Japanese media calls you? They call you the living legend of India”. And I was quite taken aback by this statement. Because in India, I am hardly recognised as a living legend.

Looking at the innumerable dance shows on Indian television, one sees that dance has today adopted more of a gymnastic, stretching and acrobatic technique rather than having a classical form as its base... 

With TV and reality shows, it’s all about Bollywood. Our culture today revolves around Bollywood. We should have a show with audiences that are interested in classical art forms. But it’s to do with the TRPs and viewership, I guess. There are hardly any viewers for art. These gymnastic-like dances have a short life span.

Working with the hearing impaired, the Salaam Baalak Trust, performing at a fundraiser for the Indian Head Injury Foundation – your penchant to be attached to a cause makes you very special. What draws you to work with these children/causes? How difficult is it to teach these children?

I realised that there is a pool of talent there with these children who are either less privileged or challenged in some way or the other. I use myself as a catalyst to mentor them and to bring them to a standard of excellence.

These days people are very shallow and think mostly of themselves and their interests. There is a whole world of people that needs help. And with encouragement from people like us, they can be uplifted. My corporate social responsibility began in the late '80s.

Working with the hearing impaired is not such a challenge because these children know how to lip read. And over a period of time, having worked with them, I have picked up the sign language to an extent to be able to communicate with them. It does take time to work on such a performance. There are other challenges too. For example, there is no wooden flooring anywhere. Otherwise the thumping would produce vibrations which would make it very easy for these children to pick up. I work with young adults rather than with children. Am presently working with the hearing impaired in Bangalore.

You interpreted Tagore. What attracted you to base your dance on his works?

In the late '80s, Indian Express had organised an event on Tagore in Kolkata and I was also selected for the performance. It was a solo performance at that time. Later when the 150 years of celebrating Tagore was on, I decided to revisit the performance with the Salaam Baalak Trust children. So the whole choreography, costumes, everything changed.

You’ve worked with the German film company ARTE and Channel 5 on a documentary film, Weaving of the Sari. What got you interested in this project? How was the entire experience of working with the weavers?

This was a research study done by the director of the film — a Georgian director — they decided how to film it. It was entirely their concept. I was the sutradhaar, the narrator. Each section had a different interpretation that I represent through movement and dance. There were different people involved in the whole process. It was interesting in its own way.

What has been your most challenging work considering that complex traditional art forms are part of your style of dancing?

Each work I decide to create is challenging. I have been working with the Manipur drummers for the last 12 years. These are traditional dramas. While creating my last work with them, I had to leave midway and go to Korea for some time. I asked them to complete the piece on their own. They were able to complete it and did a good job.

At NCPA, you perform ‘Eternal Embrace’. What is the performance all about?

‘Eternal Embrace’ is based on the Sufi poet Bulleh Shah’s poem titled ‘Maati’. It is a non-stop 60-minute solo performance and that makes it quite unique. The Islamic wing of the Metropolitan Museum of New York had asked me to prepare a piece of work with Sufi connotations. Rumi had become extremely common. I read Bulleh Shah’s poetry and was able to connect with ‘Maati’ and felt that I could interpret his work with my dance movements. The piece shall explore the tension between annihilation and infinity, the ephemeral and the material worlds. We are taking this performance on a five-city tour comprising Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Ahmedabad.

What is keeping you busy apart from this?

I am in the process of composing a piece with Korean and mridangam drummers at Chennai after which I leave for Korea.

Updated Date: Dec 11, 2016 09:03:01 IST