Days before a dance festival at Kolkata’s Nazrul Manch — the destination for the prestigious Dover Lane Music Conference — programme curator and Kathak exponent Shovana Narayan found herself reassuring senior dance performers over the inclusion of dancer Astad Deboo in the list. The year was 1995 and contemporary Indian dance was still struggling to find a foothold. “They said he isn’t traditional enough,” recalls Narayan. “But they were talking of tradition as they knew it. Not the tradition that could be evolved, or the one that could be interpreted differently, the way a dancer like Astad, who was trained in multiple forms, wanted to present.”
Deboo danced anyway, Narayan tells The Indian Express, opening the festival with her, and putting those present in a “meditative trance” — some were converted, others confused. Deboo, who passed away Thursday morning in Mumbai at the age of 73, after a brief fight with lymphoma, would go on to pioneer contemporary dance in India.
At that Kolkata performance, Deboo synthesised Kathak with Kathakali and contemporary styles. The form would never need a name; it was just Astad Deboo’s dance.
Says dancer Navtej Singh Johar, “He singularly forged his own way, had a unique vocabulary, and tread his own path diligently for decades. He was working right till the end. He was very clear in his vision about what his vocabulary was and he kept building on it. For the longest time, he was the only one on the horizon.”
Choreographer Shiamak Davar, who briefly trained with Deboo, says he influenced him and others to pick up modern contemporary dance. Describing Deboo as “way ahead of his time”, Davar adds, “In the West, they did not consider his dance Indian enough, and in India, it was not considered Western enough… That’s something I completely understand and relate to. But I think now people have understood that whether you’re Western or Indian or a mix of both, you’re original, and that’s important. He was original.”
Understanding Deboo’s trajectory over the years, from the 1980s onwards, is like watching a dancer evolve — he was constantly adding to his work, experimenting with mediums, styles, to the point when his stillness became as significant as his movement.
Deboo would also place his dance within the context of the times. In January this year, when he presented ‘Unbroken Unbound’ in Delhi to commemorate 150 years of Mahatma Gandhi, he told this reporter that it was his way of “showing solidarity with the students on the streets”. (Protests were on at the time over the CAA and violence on JNU, Jamia Millia Islamia campuses.) Says Johar, “He was very discreet, not strident about anything. (But) He was constantly weaving in contemporary concerns.”
Born to a middle-class Parsi family in July 1947, Deboo grew up in Jamshedpur and started learning Kathak in Kolkata at the age of six. After graduating in commerce from a college in Mumbai, he wanted to pursue dance in higher studies but was opposed by his father. So, in 1969, the 22-year-old young rebel boarded a cargo boat, travelling with “goats and sheep” to Europe, and after hitchhiking his way through the continent, made his way to New York in 1974.
The experiences of his travels, from Iran to London to America, not easy on a lean budget, enriched Deboo’s art.
In New York, he enrolled at the famous Martha Graham dance academy, but dropped out as he “couldn’t respond to it”. He would eventually train with Pina Bausch, at the Wuppertal Dance Company in Germany. In 1977, he returned to India and learnt Kathakali under guru E Krishna Panicker.
Over the years, Deboo would take on students, though not many, and work with the hearing-impaired.
Says friend and Kathak exponent Aditi Mangaldas, “Astad was a lone crusader, a lone warrior in a very different dance environment. He had such courage that, years ago, he just took off with the knowledge of what he had learned… So many of us talk about our great heritage but he thought of the idea of world heritage.”
Designer Sandhya Raman, who worked closely with Deboo and was one of the few to know about his cancer, which was in its fourth stage when detected, says, “Every little muscle could move in his body.”
In recent years, with age, the rebel once accused of “twirling too much” had evolved again, to movements that were almost like watching slow motion. Deboo once explained how this was tough. “Being minimal is harder than sort of prancing around. With much slower movement, I take my time and get you into it. The expression comes but in a very different rhythm.”
Even as the disease set in and the coronavirus pandemic halted life, Deboo kept working, friends say, even recording a couple of collaborative videos from home. One of the projects he was working on was archiving his 50 years in dance.
Mangaldas says the man who gave India a new language of dance, allowing cross-cultural conversations between various styles, without talking about himself, should not have had to do this. “Somebody of his stature was archiving his own work! Not the State, not any organisation, he himself. We talk of our golden history and heritage, but what about the living? Why do we leave them?”
But, like he did every day of his life — walking onto the stage, making his space — Deboo wouldn’t have cared.
with inputs by SURBHI GUPTA