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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Wah Astad!


A virtuoso dancer-choreographer, Tagore’s timeless poetry and a group of multi-talented boys come together to create magic with a blend of modern dance, puppetry and music, writes saibal chatterjee
SAIBAL CHATTERJEE | Issue Dated: February 24, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Astad Deboo | Choreographer | NCPA | Veteran dancer |

The nature and scope of contemporary dancer and choreographer Astad Deboo’s work are such that resting on is oars is never an option for him. Constant, rhythmic and perfectly orchestrated movement, both creative and physical, is an integral part of his life and art. And it invariably assumes hypnotic proportions when he weaves it into a top-notch stage performance.

It did just that and more on the evening of February 11 in a packed Kamani Auditorium in New Delhi as the 65-year-old virtuoso, in the company of eight one-time street children that he has been working with for close to five years, interpreted four poems/songs of Rabindranath Tagore.

Although the 80-minute performance was woven around only four of Tagore’s poems, the sheer range of Deboo's choreography was absolutely stunning.

From the Yogic stillness of the opening piece (Surrender) – staged with three of the boys – to the mesmeric blend of Kathak chakkars and dervish-like whirling in the final solo act (Awakening), Interpreting Tagore was an experience that allowed the audience to come face to face with an array of moods created through a blend of music, light, sound and, of course, dance.     
Deboo and Tagore go back a long way. It was in 1995 that the internationally celebrated choreographer first worked with Gurudev’s poems in a solo performance in Kolkata. In the programme note on Interpreting Tagore, the dancer writes: “I zeroed in on three poems – Akla Chalo, Your Grace, and Every Fragment of Dust is Awakened. When I read them, I was deeply touched. For me, they were resonant of my own struggles with the forces of traditionalism and the resistance to new ideas of a stone-hard bureaucracy.”

Deboo’s new Tagore work is an expansion of the earlier performance, with a fourth poem, Surrender, added to the repertoire. Interpreting Tagore was conceived as a tribute to the poet on his 150th birth anniversary and premiered at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai in November 2011. It has since been staged in many other cities, including once before in Delhi. “The earlier performance in Delhi was for a limited audience,” says Deboo. “This is the first public show of Interpreting Tagore in the city.”

“When a 150th anniversary tribute to Tagore was suggested to me, I decided to revisit the earlier work, expand its scope, and bring these young performers into the act,” says Deboo.

While the veteran dancer is an acknowledged master of his art, the boys have brought an amazingly spontaneous level of energy and verve to the performance.

The two centrepieces of Interpreting Tagore are each remarkable in their own way. Your Grace is enlivened by the use of striking masks and larger-than-life puppets. Walking Tall, a translation of Akla Chalo, is a dramatic rendition of the iconic anthem of stoic defiance.

“Some of these young performers know how to operate puppets, so I incorporated these giant figures into Your Grace, which is about Goddess Kali. The poem gave me the scope to bring in a whole ritualistic act – the young boys and I, as devotees, offering our sorrows to the Devi because that is all that we have,” explains Deboo.

Walking Tall, the legendary choreographer points out, is “semi-autobiographical”. He says: “It is my dig at the Indian classical dance mafia, the cultural bureaucracy and corporate sponsors. In spite of these people, who have constantly been a hindrance, I continue to do my work on my own terms. I continue to walk tall.”

Echoing Deboo’s experiences while seeking sponsorships to fund his projects, Walking Tall depicts dancers and corporate executives negotiating with each other and ordinary artistes earning the latter’s support while the genuinely creative dancer is shooed away disdainfully. Deboo informs the piece with a mix of anguish, anger and humour.  

The Tagore poems, translated by Delhi academician Aruna Chakravarty, are read prior to every piece by veteran film and theatre actor Akash Khurana. “These poems,” says the thespian, “are so deeply felt, profound and lyrical. They contain echoes that can touch every life.”

Deboo seamlessly moves from the personal to the universal and from the here and now to the metaphysical in his interpretation, an act supported by an array of eclectic musical pieces drawn from diverse sources. Among the musicians whose work the choreographer uses in these performances are Italian composer Frederico Senesie, singer Amelia Coni, Finnish pianist Iiro Rantala and Japanese composer Yoichiro Yoshikawa.

Deboo is especially proud of the eight former boys of Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT) who are now a part of the Astad Deboo Dance Company, having earned their spurs through years of intensive training with the master. “This group of boys is quite unbelievable,” he says. “My group in Manipur is very good too, but these boys are something else. They have raised the bar to a point that makes working with them a challenge.”

The youngest in the group is 18-year-old Rohit Kumar, while the oldest is the 28-year-old Mohammed Shamsul. “The latter is getting married tomorrow,” reveals Deboo. “As the foster-father I will have to be there at the wedding.”

The young performers have come a long way since they first met Deboo in 2008. At that point, they were a group of 14 raw youngsters, including four girls. After six months of rigorous training, they were ready to perform alongside Deboo – the result was a series of shows of a six-piece routine titled Breaking Boundaries. It was designed specifically to serve as a showcase for the street children out to claim their place in the world.

The group, which has now been pared down to eight, embraces multiple talents – puppetry, graphic design and animation, among other skills. Two of the boys, Shamsul and Avinash Kumar – Deboo describes them as “my left and right eyes” – are assistant choreographers. “They ensure that the rehearsals happen without let and the dancers stay in touch during the long breaks between one performance and the next,” says Deboo.

Another boy in the group, Anil Kumar, is adept at making puppets. The ones used in Interpreting Tagore are his and Mohammed Shameem’s handiwork. Salim Zahedi is a professional actor who made his debut some years ago in the Oscar-nominated short film, Little Terrorist. A couple of the boys are also part of the Kingdom of Dreams dance entourage.

For the young dancers from SBT, an NGO that works to rescue and rehabilitate children without a home, matching steps with the master has represented an exercise in breaking the boundaries of their existence and talent. Today they are a confident lot, at perfect ease with all the attention that their talent attracts.

“When I began working with them,” recalls Deboo, “the only dance that they were aware of was of the Bollywood kind. But they were quick to grasp the potential of their bodies and the joy and scope of contemporary dance.”

 “It’s been amazing,” he says. “It is now difficult to believe that when I started working with these boys, they had no exposure to modern dance.”

He adds: “It took about six weeks for them to get the hang of what exactly I was trying to do.”

“Initially, we found it very difficult,” Pankaj Kumar Gupta, now 23, had told this writer during the preparations for 2009’s Breaking Boundaries. “But once we started feeling the music and understanding the nuances of the movements, everything fell into place. We felt the energy and the power of the choreography and began enjoying every moment of the experience.”

Even as these once homeless boys pursue their dreams with unwavering passion, it is never easy for Deboo to keep his mission going in the face of dwindling corporate support for his kind of dance. “It is a perennial struggle, but I have survived for 43 years,” he says. “Hope keeps me going – in the end things always come through.”

  It has been especially tough this time around, he says. “I have been producing my own shows for the past 15 years,” he adds. The Astad Deboo Dance Foundation, which receives financial support from close friends and well-wishers, works to keep contemporary dance, as distinct from the Bollywood and classical forms, alive in a cluttered marketplace where genuine creativity often receives short shrift.

Says Deboo: “I cannot afford to dip into my financial reserves for these performances because the foundation has to continue working with this group and the one that I have in Manipur. I feel passionately about my work and it is my responsibility to help these boys keep doing their bit for modern dance.”

An innovator par excellence, Deboo combines the essence of classical Indian dance styles with ever-evolving contemporary techniques. The result is an unmatched lexicon of movement and grace, an experimental idiom of expression that is exclusively his own.

Even when Deboo gets roped in to lend his talent and vision to Hindi films, he makes a clean break from the conventional. He did just that in the promotional song he choreographed for Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara and in the Tabu dance number that he contributed to Maqbool Fida Husain’s Meenaxi – A Tale of Three Cities.

Deboo has been exposed to the techniques of legendary dancers like Martha Graham in London, Jose Limon in New York and Pina Bausch in Germany. He has danced on the Great Wall of China, performed with Pink Floyd in London and delivered command shows for the royalty in Japan and Thailand.

But nothing gives Deboo more pleasure than working with hearing impaired and economically deprived children. He was associated with Kolkata’s Action Players, a group of deaf actors, for 14 years and with Chennai’s Clarke School for the Deaf for seven years. “One fine morning, the sponsors told me that they ‘don’t do deaf’ anymore and that they were now looking at street children. I hope to get back to working with deaf children again next year,” he says.

Early this year, Deboo staged a solo act based on Saadat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh as part of the Sahmat festival in Delhi. “I am looking at one or two more of Manto’s stories to interpret through the medium of my dance,” says the choreographer, who leaves this week for a lecture-cum-performance trip to Kabul at the invitation of the Indian ambassador.  Yes, dance, life and Astad Deboo are always on the move!

Photos by mukunda de

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017