Contemporary Indian dance is developing a cross-cultural vocabulary that spans the country as well the world beyond the physical and creative boundaries of the nation. An Indo-French dance biennale, DanSe DialogueS-III, a seven-city dance exposition featuring French and Franco-Indian choreographies from India and France (including erstwhile French colonies), has brought to the country a unique mélange of body languages and movements which grow out of the roots matrix of classical and folk genres — to depart and deconstruct as rebellious expressions of body language that conform more to popular artistic notions rather than to the grammar of the conventional.
A collaborative performance, “Rhythm Divine” by leading Indian modern dancer Astad Deboo —trained in the kathak and kathakali dance traditions — presented unique synergy between contemporary western dances and the Indian kathak, kathakali, Bharatnatyam (from Tamil Nadu) and the temple dance, Pung Cholom, from Manipur to prove that the diverging idioms of the old and new oeuvres can co-exist on stage without using fusion as a tool to create a relevant commercial mix.
The guru performed with his troupe of 10 Manipuri drum dancers aged between 8 and 14 years at the Kamani Theatre on April 17, 2014 suring the ongoing DanSe DialogueS series.
The guru said the choreography was based on the conviction that dance was a “system of ideas, not a method, and that, together with music, dance can enrich the moral, the material and the intellectual spheres of life, leading to a new beginning”. The collaboration was born out of Astad Deboo’s 11-year romance with Manipur, where he came across dancer Guru Seityabanji and his troupe of Pung Cholom drummers of Shri Shri Govindji Nat Sankirtan—a spiritual lineage of culture.
Deboo decided to work with them in the vocabulary of the modern dance without the drums 1but with the associated vigorous body language of the traditional drummers of Manipur from north-eastern India, who dance to the Vaishnavite deities of the “Govindji lineage”.
The nearly 1 hour-17 minute performance was an exercise in high energy of the young dancers, who skipped, somersaulted, hopped and ran around the stage simulating the motions of high-velocity drumming. The language at times displayed a tendency to assimilate from the popular Manipur martial dance form, “Thang –Ta’, but Astad Deboo insisted that "the movements were a combination of Pung Cholom, Bor Cholom and contemporary dance”. The dancers used cymbals in one sequence and the “kartal” (small drums that can be slung be around the neck) in another sequence to create additional nuances of sounds and visual imagery that invoked the cosmic power of the “big bang” and “the rhythm of divine creation” that the Pung Cholom dance is identified with.
The Pung Cholom dance is the soul of Manipuri Sankirtana music and classical dance. The dancers beat small drums known as the "pung" and move their body across the stage to the rthythm of the percussion instrument that they play. They need to be acrobatic and graceful at the same time. The Pung Cholom borrows from three genres of Manipuri dance— Thang Ta, Sarit Sarak and the Maibi Jagoi.
The acrobatic dancers from Manipur were contrasted by guru Astad Deboo’s slow and defined body movements that took a bit from kathak and largely from kathakali to combine it with the free flowing international vernacular of contemporary dance that he mastered at the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1969 — with a stint at the Pina Bausch in 1980. The score, a deliberate medley of opera music and the vocal beats of Manupuri “taal” recited by the dancers onstage, enhanced the spirit of harmony between Indian classical heritage and its foreign counterparts that coincided rather than clashed.
Deboo, who has performed in 65 countries in over 44 years of his dancing career, told a master class on April 18 (2014) at the French Institute of Culture in New Delhi that he had developed “his own style of vocabulary based on his 16-years of training in classical dance and his subsequent training abroad”.
He taught a group of 12 novice dancers the basics of “his style”, the importance of Indian yoga and partnering in contemporary dance using the Indian classical idioms as the terra firma to carry the body forward in innovative ways.
“My body likes to express in different vocabularies because I started with kathak and then I went to study in London and then to Martha Graham. The body is the dancer’s strength. I have an Indian body and and I try to do as much I can (stretching it). I still have a strong back,” Deboo told his students — a surprisingly pleasing mix of young foreign and Indian dancers.
Over the decades, the “guru has become more internationalized”. The gush of emotions and expressions that accompanied the “abhinaya (facial theatre)” of his early days as a classical dancer has gone out of him with global experiences and encounters. “The language of the body is now more important. That has been the major influence,” Deboo said showing his students complex sets of “partnering moves” that required “human carriage, yoga, balance, physical strength and understanding between the dance partners”. “Do not let your partner down. Always make eye contact with your partner to assure that you are supporting your dancing mate,” Deboo advised. The dancer of Parsi origin, who trained under guru Prahlad Das and guru E.K. Panicker, was said to have broken away from the framework of classical tradition after a chance encounter with the Murray Louis Dance Company in UK, which set him off to explore new idioms.
Social intercations and cultural osmosis across economic and opportunity divides is central to guru Astad Deboo's cultural transmission to the posterity. “I have been mentoring various groups of deaf children for the last 20 years to great advantage. I have trained Bharatnatyam dancers (deaf ones) — and I have pushed myself and them in different ways. For the next 10 years, I am going to mentor different groups of both challenged and young dancers. I have also been working with street children for a almost a decade now,” the guru said.
In the last five years, the guru has set a cultural milestone by re-interpreting Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry in the contemporary dance-puppet formats with his troupe of street children from a non-profit destitutes’ home, the Salaam Balak Trust, in New Delhi. It was like crossing a cerebral divide to make the dancers understand and visualize Tagore’s poetry in dance, he had told this writer in an interview in 2012. The Tagore act spread wings since then.
“I took my Tagore’s choreography (of three poems translated in English to a human puppet dance) to Mexico, Colombia and Spain. We have completed 35 shows. We plan to take them to Holland in July,” the 67-year-old contemporary dance guru pointed out. Deboo's Tagore choreography - which features giant moving puppets on the stage — lends a new twist to the Tagore's genre of traditional expressionism with the use of folk, mime, puppets and contemporary movements.
The guru, who is performing in Sweden with his Manipuri troupe, said he would return to a new choreography in Manipur later this year. Deboo regretted that “contemporary dance was being interpreted in a blasphemous manner in India”. Any kind of body language was clubbed as “contemporary”.
“Not many institutions offer long-term courses in contemporary dances,” the guru said. One needs to train in classical dance forms and evolve a certain vocabulary of the body to dance in contemporary styles, he pointed out with flick of his body that was both classical and cutting edge contemporary at the same.