I first met Astad Deboo in 1981 when I was at the Shri Ram Centre for Art and Culture in Delhi, running the Sutradhar Puppet Theatre. He had come with a group of friends who were supporting him in doing up his sets and lighting. After that, we met off and on, when he performed in Delhi or I in Mumbai, where he was based.
Astad was a genius who could never sit still. He travelled all over the world and had a huge group of friends and people whom he knew from the world of arts and cultural institutions. When he toured, everything was planned ahead and minutely. Unlike many dancers, who are confined to their form, Astad had many different interests across the arts, from music to films. In the early days, we used to speak a lot about music and I noticed that he used a lot of (American composer) Philip Glass music. Recently, he had moved on to having a lot of his music composed by artiste Yukio Tsuji, a Japanese composer and performer.
In the early days, he used to also create different solo pieces on subjects such as drugs. I remember the remarkable piece from the 1980s Mangalore Street, depicting scenes from the streets of Mumbai, in which he used movements to bring alive the characters he had seen. It was in the mid-to-late 1980s that we worked together on our first puppet-and-dance collaboration, a 15-minute piece coincidentally called Friends, which has come into a lot of my performances since then.
It was a dance piece featuring a large puppet and Astad, and set to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s music from the 1987 (Bernardo Bertolucci) film The Last Emperor. It is about how in a friendship, one dominates the other. This causes tension between the human and the puppet, until the latter, all of a sudden, realises its power and flings the dancer, thereby taking over the human. Thereafter, the two try to come together but cannot. It turned out to be a very realistic piece. We travelled widely with it, including at Café de la Danse in Paris, with a group comprising architect Ratan Batliboi and artist Banoo Batliboi, among others.
We did another piece later, in the early 1990s, called Thanatomorphia or The Many Faces of Death, comprising his dancers and our puppeteers such as Puran Bhatt (who would win a Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar in 2003). It looked at death in myriad ways — as a mythical state where Yamraj (the Hindu god of death) lurks even as Krishna and the gopis play; as a liberator, where an old man is waiting for death and is not scared like others. The piece ends with a celebration of life. We travelled through the US, the UK, Canada and Singapore with Thanatomorphia.
I found a lot of dance inspiration for my works and he used puppetry in many ways, most recently in a piece on Goddess Kali called Your Grace (part of Interpreting Tagore) in 2012, which was with the younger puppeteers from Delhi, among others. When I did The Transposed Heads (2004), based on an old tale of two men and a woman deeply bonded, yet divided, by love, Astad had suggested that I work with Sudesh Adhana, who is now a very famous dancer in Norway and a National Award winner, and a few other performers.
In recent years, we did not see much of each other. I last met him at NCPA in Mumbai in March 2019 with his sister Gulshan at our performance, When Land Becomes Water. About two weeks ago, I found out that he was not well. There is a lot to remember of him — he did a lot of work with the Oral School for Deaf Children in Kolkata, which was started (in 1964) by a distant cousin of mine Dhun Adenwalla, and her husband Dorab. There was his work with the Gallaudet University for the deaf performing arts programme in Washington, DC, The Clarke School for the Deaf in Chennai and with the street children of Salaam Baalak Trust in Delhi. I saw some of the performances, including a small piece from the Gallaudet University that was travelling and had come to India, and realised that Astad had his own way of working with special-needs children. He worked a lot with young people, who are very indebted to him as he gave them a lot of freedom in creativity.
There were also his great number of collaborations, including with the Manipuri classical dance Pung Cholom. He would create something different out of traditional forms. And when on stage, Astad could create certain emotional states and take the audience with him. The country has lost a great artiste.
Dadi Pudumjee is founder of Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust, Delhi.(As told to Dipanita Nath)