Dancing with Astad Deboo's aesthetic and social vision
- Ketu H Katrak, California
e-mail: khkatrak@uci.edu

December 28, 2009 

A shorter version of this article was published in Pulse: Asian Music and Dance (London, 2010), Winter 2009. Reprinted here with kind permission of Pulse.

The key for me was a new generation of dancers who enlarged the circle of people who danced the dance - so as to include all races and economic classes.
- Astad Deboo, Program Notes, Breaking Boundaries

Bodies moving in unison evocatively using space in diagonal lines, V formations, in groups of three and four forming circles and mandalas with distinctive symmetry, rigorous balancing poses, use of benches as props, drum-dancers beating rhythms with their palms were all part of Astad Deboo's performance and choreography in two recent shows - Breaking Boundaries with the youth of Salaam Baalak Trust (set up by filmmaker Mira Nair after her successful film, Salaam Bombay) at the National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Bombay October 1-3, 2009, and Rhythm Divine with the Pung Cholam drum dancers of Manipur on October 6, 2009 at the magnificent outdoor setting of the Purana Quila in New Delhi as part of the Ananya Dance Festival. 

Deboo's dance journey over the past four decades is remarkable for his prodigious artistry, solo and group choreography, and collaborations with different performing artists in India and across the globe. He is the recipient of the 2007 Padma Shri Award, a prestigious recognition by the Government of India for his pioneering work in contemporary Indian dance.

Astad's artistry is marked by technical virtuosity along with a unique humanism in his dance work with the physically and socially disadvantaged - with the deaf (in Kolkata, Chennai, Washington DC) that now spans two decades, and more recently, with street children of the Salaam Baalak Trust in Delhi (the trust also has branches in Bombay). Astad is creatively passing down his legacy and the gift of his signature style onto these youthful bodies. 

Breaking Boundaries is a 5-part piece executed superbly by 14 "tough kids" as Astad describes them in the Program Brochure. Astad first "interacted" with them, then conducted workshops, "weeks of back breaking sessions stretching the architecture of the body." This piece is about "body and space." "Exploring space," he comments in the Brochure, "I had to de-program the Bollywood moves, the jhatkas and matkas and inculcate the rasas (expression of emotions as in classical Indian dance) and the mudras (hand gestures)." The particular challenge with this group, notes Astad, was to enable them to discover their body potentiality with balancing poses, with symmetrical and asymmetrical formations. Astad trained them for four months, inculcating bodily rigor and discipline, and achieved astounding focus and concentration, even a meditative stillness characteristic of his style from these 15-21 years olds. 

On the rehearsal floor (I observed him during 2 rehearsal days), Astad is a serious, demanding taskmaster setting high technique standards, achieved with hard work, sweat, and some tears. Post-rehearsal, Astad is full of affection and camaraderie with the young people who respect him highly. As one of them told me, "Many people come to Salaam Baalak and volunteer their time sharing different skills, but Astad's teaching is different. It is great." Astad himself respects and expects their highest potential as artists. His method of toughness and affection in teaching pays off; they respond as artists. For street children with their individual pasts often of violence and deprivation, Astad's style of dance provides a unique avenue to self-esteem and confidence, a shared purpose of showing their art with professionalism and seriousness along with a sense of community that they share on and off stage.

Breaking Boundaries
Breaking Boundaries
Each of the 5 segments uses a different sound - also a challenge to these performers unfamiliar with Astad's chosen soundtrack of Phillip Tan (piano), Hariprasad Chaurasia (flute, classical North Indian), and U Srinivasan (mandolin, classical South Indian). The show opens at NCPA in half-light and half-shadow, evocatively lit by Milind Shrivastava. The 13 dancers are bent forward, almost crouching as the light moves over them creating a breathless sense of expectation. The stillness of Astad's style is full and intense, resonant with the dancers' complete concentration and presence on stage. As they raise their bodies very slowly with minimal gestures, the lighting guides the audience's vision as much as the movement. The heads come up last as if emerging from a foetal position into straight, strong bodies that have endured many struggles in their young lives. It is a feat for Astad to have inculcated both the physical technique along with a meditative quality into these youngsters. Astad mentioned to me that initially they were puzzled and asked him if standing still also constituted dance! 

Cartwheeling bodies moving in a diagonal and then in a circle open one segment with 6 dancers. The movement even in unison demonstrates the individuality of each dancer. They assume difficult, often weight-bearing poses in pairs or threes building on trust as when three male dancers clasp hands and go into low backbends, then pull on their hands to come up. Two bodies back to back, as one lifts the other on his back and then gently lowers the body to the ground while the front dancer stands in a wide stance. 

Astad draws upon classical Indian dance as in Kathak like spinning bodies. Yoga asanas (poses) such as vira vudrasana (warrior) with hands raised above the heads are followed by bringing clasped hands in front of the face. Also, as in yoga, counter poses are done to balance the body, removing negative energies. There is a noteworthy logic to Astad's choreography similar to the logic of classical Indian dance compositions. 

The gestures move between softly outstretched palms as in making an offering to very bold and sharp movements as in martial arts. One gesture repeats like a choreographic mantra when the palm of one hand, tautly held cuts the air in diagonal moves in front of the body as it bends low. The movements remain alive and surprising. Astad himself is a master at presenting abstract movement with full emotional engagement of rasa

The final segment evoking bhakti (devotion) rasa is truly touching without slipping into sentimentality - the sense of devotion that the dancers express to their own artistry, to their teacher Astad, to one another, and to the audience. There is a sense of wholeness that envelops the audience in a profound feeling of connection overcoming the many barriers that divide us as people, and particularly in the Indian context, caste and class divisions that these children have endured all their lives. Through this work, they demonstrate their full humanity that communicates to each heart in the audience. 

Astad's own personal effort has secured bookings for Breaking Boundaries in Kanpur, Chennai, Kolkata, and possibly Bangalore. Some of the dancers are stepping out of Delhi for the first time, seeing other parts of India and experiencing different audiences. 

Rhythm Divine
Rhythm Divine
Rhythm Divine, Astad's choreography with the Manipuri Pung Cholam drummer dancers at the outdoor venue of Delhi's Purana Quila was part of the five-day Ananya Dance Festival, described as a dialogue between movement and monument. Astad is fond of site-specific work and his choreography here rose to the occasion before a packed audience of teeming humanity. In Rhythm Divine, Astad plays with "a seamless blend of the avant-garde with traditional movement" as noted in the introductory announcement. 

The show opens with a moving body inside a large amorphous plastic sheet on centre stage, a foetus inside a womb surrounded by kneeling bodies. The form emerges out of the plastic and Astad greets the audience with a low back-bend as if paying homage to the viewers and to the divine powers around us. The soulful sound of an operatic soprano intones profound feeling reflected in Astad's body. Throughout the first two segments, a dedicatory quality is pervasive, offering everything to a higher realm; qualities of reverence and spirituality that are part of the Pung Cholam tradition of Manipur. 

The segments flow with a perceptive choreographic logic from the slow and devotional to staccato beats and martial movements. Astad uses the bol cholum, the loud recitation of drum syllables and dance steps usually executed with visible drums but Astad's choice "to reference the drums" (Astad's comment during the Seminar organized by Ananya the day after the show) without showing them until the very last segment works evocatively. The invisible drums are beaten via gestures, with clapping, with palms beating the floor rhythmically. The audience, expecting to see the drums is held in suspense until the drums appear in the final segment. 

In one section the dancers play the khartals (cymbals) held by bright red cloth that etched beautifully in the stage lights. Astad's own entrances and exits into the group were both at times imperceptible as well as carefully marked with his buoyant and energetic interactions with the drum dancers, imitating their movements, then leading them with his, in a sawal-jawab (question-answer) type interaction. He also performed Kathak-style chakars (circles) with breathtaking speed and aplomb that had technical mastery along with ecstatic dancing evoking the Sufi tradition of whirling and evoking the divine. The choreography was punctuated by sounds of ritual gongs followed by silence, piercing gunshots reminding the audience of the ongoing violence in Manipur. However, the overall feel of the work is ritualistic and meditative. 

Similar to Astad's work with the Salaam Balaak street children, in Rhythm Divine, he creates with a differently marginalized group from Manipur in India's troubled Northeast region. Astad works as choreographer, dancer, and presenter for these groups. Although Astad's style is highly individual, he is gifted at interacting and collaborating with a variety of performing artists. He has also worked with thang-ta, Manipuri martial artists whose "agility and virility" could assimilate Astad's rigorous technique. During the Seminar, Astad demonstrated how a physical movement from martial arts flows into his own movement. He is very clear about how he works with different styles - it is never a matter of simply "adding on" but discovering connections between his own technique and other styles. And he brings new body awareness and choreographic insights from his own style for differently trained artists not used to taking crouching positions or dancing to unfamiliar music. 

Astad notes that the "contemporary" as a word in the English language indicates the now. However, "our contemporary" he notes, in India, "has to evolve and be Indian Contemporary" that includes traditional, folk and other expressive forms of movement, theater, and sound. Indian Contemporary is very different from Western Contemporary since Indian aesthetic does not compartmentalize movement from theatre, or music from poetry. In India, classical dance is the base for most performers of the Contemporary. The key is how to integrate other styles to create one's own unique language of movement.

Ketu H Katrak is Professor of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Politics of the Female Body: Postcolonial Women Writers of the Third World (Rutgers University Press, 2006), among other publications