Turning 60 has no great significance in the life of Astad Deboo. “I’ve been a restless child for the last 40 years. I don’t think that is going to change,” he says, sipping a mango drink at Cafe Samovar, his regular haunt in Mumbai since he came to the city when he was 19. The restlessness is not just in the pursuit of new creative ideas and collaborations, but in trying to get his due in India where, he believes, genuine recognition has eluded him.
Yet, Deboo is the most recognizable figure of modern dance here, which is still considered an alternative art form. The media has always been kind to Deboo; his every performance in India—only once or twice in three years—receives wide publicity.
Five years ago, when we met for an interview before a performance in Mumbai, he had said: “The catchline for this new cola ad sums up what I ask myself when I’m in India: ‘Mera number kab ayega?’” Not much has changed in the way he thinks. If that’s his childlike restlessness, it is more pronounced than ever.
It’s difficult to pigeonhole Deboo as a dancer. Trained in Kathak and Kathakali, he has infused elements of western dance and yoga aesthetics into his idiom, and has collaborated with deaf and mute children for some of his best performances such as Contraposition, which was performed in Mumbai two years ago. Right now, he is working with the Pung Cholam drummers of Manipur.
Deboo grew up in Kolkata and Jamshedpur, where his father worked as an account executive with Tata Steel, a company that completed 100 years this year. “It was a very cosmopolitan upbringing. We had a Bengali family with nine children as our neighbours on one side and a Bihari one on the other. It was a self-sustained, comfortable life.” His earliest memories outside home were of trekking trips, being a boy scout, swimming classes, watching German and American colleagues of his father visit them and seeing J.R.D. Tata and his wife Thelma visit Jamshedpur: “My childhood has a lot to do with my global sensibility, because we were exposed to foreigners other than the British very early in life.”
A “fidgety child”, he was introduced to dance by his mother because she thought his restlessness would find an outlet in it. He learnt Kathak in Kolkata, but had to stop when he came to join college in Mumbai, because his parents insisted he train to be an accountant. “Around 1965, I saw a performance of the Mary Louise Dance Company in Mumbai, and it opened a new world for me.”
In 1969, he boarded a cargo boat to Iran with £3 (about Rs250) in his pocket, from where he sailed to Europe in search of a dance vocabulary. “It was very kosher to be an Indian at that time. I was an exotic specimen and, although it was frustrating at times, it helped, because people were open to my ideas.”
He returned to India eight years later and began his creative journey, with four years of training under Kathakali maestro E. Krishna Panicker in Kerala. While Kathak gave him the rigour of body movements, Kathakali gave him the tools to express his stories. “The classical dance community was harsh, for them I was an upstart. But all that changed when I received the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1995.” In April this year, he received the Padmashri.
Deboo spends only 90 days in India and when he is here, he gives his hard sell abilities a shot, to get corporate sponsorship. “In Europe, the US and even parts of Asia, they ask me to compromise on my themes and stories, not my form. I get commissioned to express an idea that they want executed, but in my way. In India, I’m still considered an upstart, some kind of a fringe guy who can’t attract audiences,” he says, amused and bitter at the same time.