'Mumbai has few platforms for dancers'
Astad Deboo has not performed in the city for more than two years, and has no shows lined up in spite of having a new production coming up by the year's end. The contemporary dancer talks to Phorum Dalal about Mumbai's dance scene, his present work and an impatient audience
You last performed in Mumbai two years ago. Any plan to perform in the city soon?
In spite of having a new production slated for the end of the year, I am not performing in Mumbai anytime soon. It hardly offers many options for dancers. South Mumbai only has the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), which has its own policies. Meanwhile, north Mumbai has St Andrew’s Auditorium but it’s expensive to rent, while Prithvi does not showcase dance. I would love to perform in the city, but I have not come across any opportunity after the Kala Ghoda festival in 2012.
What are you working on at present?
Currently, I am rehearsing my work, Interpreting Tagore, with the street children of Delhi who will perform in October at the Festival of Cervantino, the most important festival of performing arts in Latin America, in Mexico. After having performed eight shows in different cities in Mexico, we will perform in Bogota, Colombia, at the end of October. In the beginning of November, we perform in Spain.I am also rehearsing my solo for a performance on September 21 in Washington DC to mark the 10th anniversary celebration of the Daniel Phoenix Dance Company. Daniel is a trained Bharat Natyam dancer and had also studied contemporary dance in the US. I am also rehearsing with the Pung Cholam drummers of Manipur on a piece called Rhythm Divine, which wil be performed on October 1 at a dance festival organised by Raja and Radha Reddy. A new work is in the process of being developed with an Indian classical musician.
Many international artistes are coming down to perform in India.
Yes, there are a few who come down to perform. Sometimes due to lack of space in Mumbai, the artistes perform in lecture halls. At times, the attendance is rather poor at such venues, where as in the other metro cities, there are enough platforms available.
Do dancers receive commissioned projects in India?
In my career spanning 40 years, I have gained a good audience. But, for the past two decades, I am producing my own works. Such is the sad truth. The concept of getting art work commissions does not exist in India.
You were born in the year India won its Independance. How was the dance scenario then?
I started studying Kathak at the age of six and after completing my college education, I went overseas to study contemporary dance. I returned in 1978 and started exploring the possibilities of presenting my work which was not easy, but I managed to cultivate an audience. The media was extremely supportive because something new was being tried. Today, the situation is different. Everybody wants to do contemporary dance.
What is your take on the contemporary dance scenario today?
Today, the dancers are not trained to the extent they should be, and there is no technique to their training. The result is extremely poor which shows in their dance. Even choreographers are not well-trained and their vocabulary is very limited. Indian classical dancers, too, are trying to contemporarise their work, but many a times they fail. The process of creating a contemporary work requires a lot of careful crafting. Just by adding non-classical music to a piece does not make it contemporary. One needs excellence of physical training, which does not end at the ability to jump and twist.
How did your work with street children begin?
Between 1988 and 2007, I was actively working with the hearing-impaired community in Kolkata and Chennai. I educate children in dance with a precise method of mentoring. In 2008, I tied up with the NGO, Salaam Baalak Trust. I started mentoring 14 young performers and created a work in 2009 called Breaking Boundaries. After this, I was looking at creating a new work in 2011 to celebrate Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary. I selected eight young men from Salaam Baalak trust who had trained with my company.
As an Indian performer, how is the response when you perform abroad?
Taking your performance overseas is not all that easy but the response I get for my work is very assuring.
What sort of response does your work receive in India?
In the last four decades, I have developed an audience in India and with time, it has grown. Presently, there is an entire new audience comprising young people who are very appreciative of my work. It is very refreshing.
What sort of performances do you enjoy watching?
I recently watched Kathak expert Kumudini Lakhia perform in the city. I love watching different dance and music performances, wherever I go. I love to observe the choreography, the music other performers are using. This educates me with any new composer on the block, and I take it as a process to keep myself updated. I seldom deconstruct a piece, as I like to sit back and enjoy the show. I have seen some good and bad performances. I don’t judge the performance of a newcomer, as it reminds me of my time as a beginner.
As a dancer, what is your thought process?
For a classical dancer, the subject revolves around Radha, Krishna, and other mythological gods and character. As a contemporary dancer, I have to think what wants me to make the piece and derive what subject do I want to work with. I may bring in a few moves of Kathak and Kathakali sometimes, or create my own movement. I am always researching and learning. If I stop looking for different ways, it will reflect in my work, and the audience will say, ‘Yeh toh dekha tha last time’ (I saw this last time).
What is the nature of the audience today?
Today’s audience has no patience, and they want every thing jaldi (quick). This is one of the reasons why performers have started cutting short their pieces. I was working with a French choreographer on a project and he came with a 20-minute work. My performances are at least 75 minutes long!
Why do you think some Indian classical dancers condemn the contemporary dance form?
For those who follow Margam, and are against contemporary dances, I say one thing: ‘You like Dal Dhokli and I like Undhiyu.’ It is okay if they are not open to contemporary, and I can understand that.