Dancers in "Contraposition"
ASTAD DEBOO is a man with a mission today. A mission to break the artificial barriers between the normal and challenged worlds through dance. His current idiom? A navarasa-based hour-long choreography titled "Contraposition". Its stars? Dancers from Chennai's Clarke School for the Deaf, with whom he makes a cameo appearance.
The work marks a reason for Astad and his eight dancers to celebrate. It has been chosen for the inaugural ceremony of the International Deaf Olympics or 20th Deaflympic Games at Melbourne from January 5 to 16, 2005.
When "Contraposition" premieres in Chennai on December 9 2004, at the Chinmaya Heritage Centre, it will mark over 16 years of Astad's engagement with the hearing impaired through theatre and dance. His involvement began with The Action Players in Kolkata, continues with the Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., and now embraces the Clarke School.
"R. Karthika, a Bharatanatyam dancer from Clarke, had already travelled to the 2002 International Deaf Festival at Gallaudet," recalls Astad, adding, "As I worked with their dance teachers, Narayanee Venkatasubramanian and Lakshmi Mahesh, I realised that these divas could become role models in their own community, inspiring others."
How does Astad, the first name in Indian contemporary dance today, see his ongoing interaction with these differently-abled dancers? "Here is a community of people, as varied as any other, as talented, as unique, with perhaps more to share with the world than any of us.
"And yet they remain largely unseen, ignored, I could even say, unheard. I was deeply touched by the sense of bhakti they came to me with," he once wrote.
"Years of conditioning made me unthinkingly treat them with kid gloves. But I wanted them to be judged on the same level as their hearing peers.So, I pushed them to excel, to go beyond the limitations of their condition. They responded like true artists, trusting the exacting process and emerging winners at the end.
"All it took was recognition of their real desire — to be given legitimate space along with their peers in mainstream society."
Breaking barriers through dance -- Astad Deboo.
In Bangalore to finalise the original soundtrack for "Contraposition" with brilliant Berklee-trained musician-composer Amit Heri, thanks to seed money for the production from the Royal Netherlands Embassy, Astad shares moments from the ongoing production through a recent interview.
What challenges did he face while working with the hearing impaired? "Basically, I have to get them to count, perhaps in groups of eight," recalls Astad, counting out aloud. "Synchronisation is just as major a challenge because each person counts differently. With The Action Players, many of the actors had two left feet, while the Clarke School girls already have a dance vocabulary. I'm trying to get them to emote more, breaking the movements up into counts of four, seven or nine, depending on the music. At Gallaudet, it's a challenge for them to try mudras, just as it is for the Clarke dancers to balance on their legs. I'd like them to feel comfortable with their bodies, to project the joy of dance, beyond the merely staccato."
"With assistance from Narayanee and Lakshmi over the past 18 months, I've now got them going in my style of work," stresses Astad.
Those who have watched the master-dancer recall his distinctive melding of deft Kathak footwork, Kathakali abhinaya and contemporary western dance vocabulary.
Why did he pick the navarasas for this international production? "These Bharatanatyam dancers can do their jathiswaram or tillana, but not enough feeling was coming through," Astad emphasises. "There's no story line. They are just expressing that particular emotion, the mood extended by Amit's music. I had to communicate the sad or playful moments to them. We've been able to dissolve the bridge from a very Indian movement to an Astad Deboo gesture."
Some of Clarke's dancers have travelled to Mumbai and Bangalore to perform at corporate shows with Astad, but this will be their debut at a public performance. "Earlier, I had only done vignettes with The Action Players, never a full evening of dance," he says.
"Contraposition", with its danseuses between 18 and 20, will tour Bangalore (December 13/14), New Delhi (December 16), Mumbai (December 21-23), Melbourne and Kuala Lumpur. That's despite the uphill tasks of fundraising, travelling and finding responsive audiences.
Back home on January 19, 2005, Astad will take off two days later on his personal artistic schedule.
To work with an installation artist in the Munich U-bahn station to "bring public spaces alive," then with a Bavarian school for the hearing impaired.
That's after he has interacted in Chennai with an Australian-British deaf performer, en route to creating a performance on Amir Khusru.
Astad has come a long way from the six-year-old Parsi boy in Jamshedpur who took Kathak lessons from Kolkata's Guru Prahlad Das twice a week.Or the flower child who hitchhiked through Europe in 1969 after an Indian graduation.
For, at the moment, with the Clarke School troupe, he's dancing to the beat of a different drummer.
(Originally in The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, 2004)