If music be the sounds between silence, dance is the language of holding stillness. And, with someone like Astad Deboo, the passing of time necessarily turns into a meditative experience. This weekend, as a part of the Yagnaraman July Fest 2018, the veteran artiste — now aged 70 — will be conferred with a lifetime achievement award. He will also present a dance recital, bringing some of the magic from his five decades of performing across the world, onto the stage at the Krishna Gana Sabha, in Chennai.
The occasion is landmark for many reasons — although, the most crucial of them all is to do with a sense of acceptance for his art form. “It feels good, it feels like a triumph for contemporary dance,” says Deboo, over a telephone conversation. “The Krishna Gana Sabha serves as a sort of gatekeeper for classical dance — for them to consider giving me an award for my journey and work, is important.” The late R Yagnaraman, in whose name the festival and awards are instituted, was massive in stature for the support he extended to artistes, notes Deboo.
By honouring Deboo, the award makes note of his tireless work to establish the contemporary idiom of dance, and its discipline. The most remarkable thing yet is that Deboo is active as a touring performer, and he’s still experimenting and evolving his work.
On contemporary terms
The award also goes a long way to indicate change, points out Deboo, who received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1996, and the Padma Shri in 2007. “When I started off (in the 1970s), ‘contemporary’ was a word not to be used, it was a strict no-no,” he recalls. “Today, you say contemporary, and it’s ‘yes, yes, yes’.”
Expectedly, Deboo has seen his share of below-par work. “Today, youngsters only want instant gratification,” he rues. “Even in contemporary dance, there are a lot of them with absolutely no training!” he exclaims. However, there are many others who have trained in classical dance, and are now looking in a different direction of presenting themselves, he adds. “I believe, the Indian classical dance scene is undergoing change as well — be it in Odissi, or bharatanatyam — there is an increased sense of openness. Now you get to see ensemble works, which you never saw earlier.” Among emerging artistes to look out for in India, Deboo names Surjit Nongmeikapam, Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy, Hemabharati Palani, Virieno Christina Zakiesato and Mandeep Raikhy.
“I keep telling youngsters, a foundation is all-important. A writer reads, a painter studies and paints and paints...” he offers. “Nowadays, everybody is doing contemporary dance! But they need to have a grounding (in terms of training) to build upon.”
The art of slowing down time
For his own part, Deboo admits that his personal style has been constantly changing. “In the last few years, I’ve become an introvert, and more interested in very controlled, minimalistic movements.” It is phenomenal to note that Deboo, as yet, has the stamina to pull off a 60-minute show. “There has to be riyaz,” he asserts. “If I’m to stand on one leg and balance — without practice, that wouldn’t happen!” Notably, Deboo’s movement vocabulary — a methodical, deeply emotive act of slowing things down — has influenced artistes across other fields, from theatre to visual arts. While it has doubtlessly taken a lifetime to hone and achieve that level of control over his gestures and expressions, Deboo recounts a thought handed to him in his childhood. “I always say, what my father embedded in me as a philosophy: ‘The going is delayed, not denied’,” he says. “This helped me take disappointments in my stride, and I believe, sometimes dreams do come true, and sometimes, you just have to keep on going. It’s all about the passion. If some avenues are closed at some point, other avenues will eventually open up.”
Ultimately, though, it’s all about hard work, perseverance and self-belief, Deboo adds. All said, “You have to keep pushing yourself,” he declares. It helps to realise that his sentiment comes with the validation of a lifetime’s incomparable achievements.
Pic courtesy: Amit Kumar