Asian Music and Dance

Breaking Boundaries

Cartwheeling bodies criss-cross the stage diagonally, bodies balance in unison on narrow benches in Astad Deboo’s Breaking Boundaries with Salaam Baalak Trust youth (set up for street children by film-maker Mira Nair after Salaam Bombay’s success), performed at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai October 1-3, 2009. Manipuri Pung Cholam drum-dancers leap and twirl in Deboo’s Rhythm Divine in Delhi October 6, 2009 at the magnificent outdoor setting of Purana Quila, part of Ananya Dance Festival described as a dialogue between movement and monument.

Deboo, recognised as a pioneer in contemporary Indian dance, received the Padma Shri (2007). His solo, group and collaborative choreography over four decades with theatre and martial artists also includes creative choreography with the physically and socially disadvantaged—with the deaf in Kolkatta, Chennai, Washington DC for twenty years, and more recently, with street children of Salaam Baalak. Astad is creatively passing down his legacy and signature style onto youthful bodies. 

Fourteen ‘tough kids’ superbly perform Breaking Boundaries, a five-part piece ‘about body and space’ (program brochure). “I had to deprogram the Bollywood moves” comments Astad, “the jhatkas and matkas and inculcate the rasas and the mudras.” With four months of rigorous training the youth discover their body potentiality, replicating Astad’s characteristically slow, still and focused movements. Initially, they had asked if standing still also constitutes dance!

Breaking Boundaries opens in half-light, half-shadow, evocatively lit by Milind Shrivastava. The thirteen dancers bend forward, almost crouching; still bodies with resonant intensity. They rise slowly as if emerging from fetus into straight bodies. For youngsters to imbibe Astad’s meditative quality is a feat indeed. 

For street children with their individual violent pasts, the technical rigour of balancing poses offers a unique avenue to self-confidence, and a shared purpose of communicating their art. Kathak chakars, yoga asanas, and weight-bearing poses demonstrate trust as three male dancers clasp hands, move into low backbends, and pull on the hands to arise.

Bhakti rasa in the final segment is deeply touching (without slipping into sentimentality), connecting the audience with the humanity of each dancer. 

As with marginalised street-children, Rhythm Divine showcases Manipuri Pung Cholam drum-dancers from India’s neglected North-East region. Under the stars, a packed audience watches this ‘seamless blend of the avant-garde with traditional movement’. Reverence and spirituality that are part of Pung Cholam tradition pervade the ambience.

Astad’s perceptive choreography moves from slow and devotional to martial movements. Khartals (cymbals) held by bright red cloth beautifully etch the night sky. Astad shares buoyant sawal-jawab interactions with the dancers, then executes kathak-style chakars with breathtaking aplomb. The whirling, Sufi-like, ecstatically calls on the divine. Sounds of ritual gongs, then silence followed by piercing gunshots remind the audience of ongoing violence in Manipur. 

Astad’s creative choice ‘to reference the drums’ via gestures, clapping, and bol cholum rather than showing them from beginning to end builds audience suspense. Drums appear in the final segment with the vivacious dancers thrilling the viewers. 

Astad’s Contemporary Indian dance communicates a unique language of movement and music. “Our contemporary [dance in India]” he remarks, “has to evolve and be Indian Contemporary.”



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