Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Astad Deboo’s Astonishing Back-bends

The dancer is revolutionary in many ways, one being his ability to make his body do what he wants it to

At 71, Astad Deboo has one hell of a back bend. In his new performance Liminal, and the forthcoming Interconnect, the dancer’s spinal column does a lot of work. “I am working much more with my back now, the aches and pains are there, everybody has them after a certain age. I work harder to keep myself fit now,” Deboo told me recently when we met, before performance of Liminal at Tamasha, an intimate, experimental performance space he specifically designed it for.

Article by Sanjukta Sharma | The Voice of Fashion

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He said “being rejected” still motivates him, besides the innocent, inexplicable ecstasy of performing to grand musical designs on a stage, and the freedom of knowing that the body can still be moulded into

his best tool of expression. The body does what we want it to, he said—you have to want it do something badly enough, and work hard at it.

In an ageist society like ours, Deboo is a revolutionary. His creative idiom is still evolving, which essentially proves that each age group has its qualities and values. Why are people afraid of seeing ageing bodies? Because it reminds us that we will be unattractive or immobile after a particular age. The promise of being young is the stuff marketing dreams are made of—youth is the elixir that can cure all ills. It is also a deeply entrenched Indian view that age means “retirement” or rest or stillness and quietude. The superannuated man or woman is seen as homebound, not footloose. Deboo is constantly challenging that idea, and with spectacular obliviousness. In his mind, he is still making progress in a journey that speaks almost 50 years—2019 will be his 50th year as a dance professional. He is trying things he hasn’t done before. “It is still a solo ship. I still struggle to raise funds, to put on a show. Sometimes friends ask me why I am still pushy. That’s the only way I know,” he says.

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Japanese dancer Eiko Otake in her mid-60s continues to perform. Photo: William Johnston\eikoandkoma.org

Interconnect is a collaborative piece with Rudra Veena virtuoso Bahauddin Dagar. Dagar, Pratap Awadh on the Pakhawaj and the vocals of Dhrupad singer Chintan Upadhyay create this piece with Deboo about the journey of a day on earth—from dawn to dusk. Liminal is a three-piece solo performance about anguish, loss and playfulness that celebrates the flourishes that he has mastered over 49 years. Deboo is sublime in it. His signature gestural language, with slow, extended movements of the limbs display muscular power, grace, rhythmic complexity, full-bodied passion and an astonishingly flexible lower back. He has nurtured his dance over years of travelling, collaborating (with Manipuri drummers, Korean and Carnatic musical ensembles, hearing-impaired children, dancers like the Japanese Yukio Tsuji and others), and as he says, “being rejected” by the arts establishment and not giving him enough funding or support.

Deboo was the first Indian “modern dancer”, an artiste concerned with form, respectful of tradition and committed to universal values but with the ability to invent a distinctive style that transcends genres. The New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella wrote about American dancer Mark Morris in her book Mark Morris, “He is a sort of car crash of personalities.” Our Deboo is somewhat similar—there’s a music scholar, a shishya (disciple) in the classical Indian dance sense, a Parsi, an anti-establishment artiste, a global aesthete all washed up into the same body. His hair cuts—usually spirals in back and grey, resembling hip-hop fashion, makes his very un-Indian in India. But the Kathak-inspired, fluid voluminous costumes are Indian in other parts of the world. According to his  plan, the costumes are designed in layers, usually with a diaphanous top layer with intricate embroidery or other work by Ahmedabad designer Archana Shah or the Mumbai brand Jade (Monica and Karishma). Each one is different, and sometimes Deboo goes austere—like in Liminal, where he wears a T-shirt and a pair of tights in one piece, and a flowing all-black garment which he can manoeuvre with his hands, making it integral to the movements of his hands.

Journeys in his 20s across 32 countries gave him sharpness and independence. Emotionalism is central to his work.

Airy leaps and jeté-like movements are less prominent in Deboo’s works now. But when he choreographs, he still goes the whole hog, he says. Kathak twirls and intricate Kathakali movements are integral, and he continues to use them with ease in his new works.

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Italian prima ballerina Alessandra Ferri’s comeback performance in 2016. Photo: Timothy A Clary\AFP

Deboo, born in 1947, is in an exclusive club of dancers all over the world in supreme form well beyond their 50s: Alessandra Ferri, now 55, an Italian prima ballerina who made a comeback two years ago after she stopped dancing in her early 40s, American Carmen de Lavallade who performed until her early 80s, Swedish Mats Ek danced till he was 70, Japanese Eiko Otake in her mid-60s who continue to perform, American-Italian Simone Forti who danced till she was 80 and continues to be a choreographer with her troupe.

There are no secrets to their enduring strength and creativity. It is the simple gift of knowing that age is a number and expressing through the body has nothing to do with how many wrinkles it has.

Astad Deboo’s Interconnect will be performed at the Tata Theatre, National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai, on 30 November. Tickets are available at Boookmyshow.com


Body Politic is a fortnightly column about what social pressures, disease and disability can do to body image.

Sanjukta Sharma is a Mumbai-based writer and critic, and former editor of Mint Lounge.

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