The globe-trotting contemporary dancer, Astad Deboo, is staging a new dance production in his hometown Mumbai after two years. He talks about being the ‘enfant terrible’ of dance, performing at 69, and his equation with the city
We are at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), watching contemporary dancer Astad Deboo (69) rehearse for his new production — Eternal Embrace. Unlike his stage attire of an angarkha, he is dressed casually in a striped T-shirt and printed pants. As he starts dancing, he seems to enter a trance. He does his signature whirl, gravity-defying back bends, and through fluid hand movements, he evokes a vision of dystopia.
This 60-minute solo production is inspired by Maati, a Punjabi poem by Sufi poet Hazrat Bulleh Shah. The poem explores the tension between annihilation and infinity, and the cycle of life and death. Deboo says Maati mirrors his state of mind and the unease he feels when he reads of what’s happening across the world.
The choreography features a combination of Kathak, Kathakali, and contemporary dance and is accompanied by live music by Japanese musician Yukio Tsuji. “There is also an element of silence to the performance,” says Deboo, who terms it an “abstract dance”. “The viewer has to look at the whole picture and find his or her own interpretation,” he says.
Originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum (Islamic Wing), New York, in 2015, Deboo has since altered the dance for his latest performance. “I am nervous to see the audience’s reaction since it is a minimal piece,” he says. Does performing become a challenge at his age, we ask. “Age does come in the equation but I have been blessed. I work hard on my back, which is the strongest point in my movement,” he says.
Eternal Embrace marks Deboo’s first performance in the city in two years. While he is based in Lamington Road, Mumbai, he is rarely in the city as he tours the world for collaborations with musicians and dancers. “Mumbai is where I come home. I am happy to be back, but delighted to leave,” he laughs.
Back in time
Considered to be a pioneer of contemporary dance, Deboo trained in Kathak from the age of six, and later in life, he learned Kathakali. Born in a Parsi family, Deboo grew up in Jamshedpur and Kolkata, and did his B Com from Mumbai’s Podar College of Commerce and Economics in the mid-’60s. “I did it for my parents who wanted me to have a college education. Afterwards, I was free to pursue my dream,” he says.
In 1965, he saw a modern dance performance by the Mary Louise Dance Company in Mumbai, which inspired him. “I was fascinated by the lack of inhibition, and the attention to factors like lighting in dance,” he says. Four years later, he sailed via a cargo boat to Iran, and from there to Europe to learn modern dance. “It was a way of adventure travelling that is now becoming fashionable. I went with an open mind in search of new experiences. There were hardships, but they are necessary ingredients in life,” he says.
Over the years, Deboo trained in the Martha Graham technique of modern dance (which highlights inner struggles and emotions through dance) at the London School of Contemporary Dance; and was mentored by German performer Pina Bausch (a pioneer of dance theatre) in Wuppertal Dance Company, Germany; and American dancer Alison Becker Chase (known for her intense physical routines) of the Pilobolus Dance Company, USA.
Based on his training in classical and modern dance, Deboo devised a unique style of contemporary dance. But when he returned to India in 1977, he found no takers. “There was nothing for me to do for 10 years. I was considered the ‘enfant terrible’ of dance. The West was hooked to the idea of an exotic India. They told me to do traditional dances and not bother about contemporary dance. I stood my ground,” he says.
Wall of fame
One of the highlights in his career is his collaboration with British rock band Pink Floyd (1969). “It was my first time collaborating with a music group and, that too, a rock group. At that point, the band was just starting out,” he recalls.
He also worked extensively with hearing impaired students across India — in the ’80s, he started training The Action Players, a deaf theatre group from Kolkata. Always keen to innovate and experiment, he has danced outside the confines of the theatre, performing at venues as varied as The Great Wall of China and a home in Chettinad, Tamil Nadu.
And despite performing for more than four decades, and winning the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1996) and Padma Shri (2007), Deboo still finds it hard to find promoters in India to produce his work. “I am disappointed at the lack of corporate support, but it has not stopped me from working and creating,” he says.
Eternal Embrace will be performed on December 10, 7pm
At Experimental Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point
Call: 2282 4567