Astad Deboo

New Performance

Grant Period: Over six months

This grant enables distinguished contemporary dancer-choreographer, Astad Deboo, to collaborate with practitioners of Pung Cholom, a traditional Manipuri form of drum dancing, to produce a new choreographic piece titled The Rhythm Divine. Astad Deboo studied Kathak under Guru Prahlad Das and Kathakali under Guru E.K. Pannicker. He was able to break free of “the iron frame of classical tradition only when a chance encounter with Murray Louis Dance Company set him on a long journey in search of a unique idiom”. He spent the next two decades learning, observing and experimenting with the myriad forms of modern and traditional dance that he encountered in South and Central America, China, Japan, Indonesia, Australia, Europe, and the USA. Over the years, Astad’s eclectic experience in dance has gradually merged into a style that relies on extreme physical control and strong visual impact. His choreography, which was originally inspired by the narrative line of traditional dance forms, now has the cerebral intensity and abstraction of contemporary movement art, yet is known for fusing strict form with deep emotion and inwardness.

Astad constantly sets himself new challenges in dance. When he became “weary of the proscenium stage... which reduces all formations to frontal viewing”, he began performing site-specific work. His sites of performance have included The Great Wall of China, a Chettinad home, the National Gallery of Modern Art, a railway station and the courtyard of a college, inviting audiences to see his work from various angles, levels, or in fragments. With the rich movement vocabulary he has acquired, Astad has been able to engage in diverse creative collaborations––not only with other dancers, but performers from other disciplines. His work in partnership with Dhrupad musicians, with contemporary puppeteers and with Manipuri martial artists has been acclaimed for its strength and interpretive clarity. This grant will help Astad build on his interest in artistic collaboration.

Pung Cholom is a Tandav dance form. The dancers, dressed in dhotis and white turbans, play the Pung (drum), slung across their shoulders, while simultaneously executing both graceful and vigorous movements. The choreography is synchronised, and the sound of the drums - ranging from soft whispers to thunderous climaxes (marking time slowly or quickly) - echoes the dancers’ progression from gentle movements to frenzied action, softness to ecstatic heights. Pung Cholom is performed as an invocation preceding the Sankirtana and usually also as a prelude to the Ras Lila. Astad’s relationship with Pung Cholom dates back to 1999, when he first worked with the dancing drummers in a performance for a corporate house. Since then, they have often featured in work that he has presented both here and abroad. The earlier pieces, however, found Astad and the Pung Cholom performers working largely from within their respective dance idioms.

This grant will give Astad and the Pung Cholom performers the opportunity to collaborate over an extended period. Astad’s leading collaborator for the proposed production will be Guru Seityaban. Astad hopes that the choreographer from Mumbai and the ritual dancers of Manipur will touch each other’s lives through the project, but he desires, most of all, to create “something that makes sense of our lives”. The production will inevitably draw on images that spring from the setting in which it is created. The Rhythm Divine is expected to be ready by February 2008.