This is a year of obituaries. And now Astad Deboo is also gone. Any attempt to write the history of contemporary dance in India shall be unsuccessful without acknowledging his contribution. There were some before him and several shall come after, but Deboo will be credited for creating a distinct contemporary Indian dance idiom.
At this point, it is perhaps worthy to reflect if there should be a separate history for contemporary dance in India or should it be integrated within the larger Indian dance history? There could be different views about that, but Deboo freely spoke about his influences, thus creating a transparent artistic practice. I say this with the awareness that the classical establishment remains wary about the contemporary and platforms to showcase contemporary dance work still continue to languish in the country. The ongoing pandemic has complicated things further. When Deboo began his journey as a dancer in India, he was faced with similar challenges and the larger hostility of the classical dance establishment that disfavored his forays.
Trained in the classical Indian dance traditions of Kathak and Kathakali, Deboo’s dance and choreographic practice in several ways showcased an ongoing dialogue between his training and exposure to western dance and theory such as Martha Graham, Pina Bausch, Alison Chase and various Indian dance traditions. He travelled the world, learnt martial art traditions amongst other forms and realised early in his life that his style will embody myriad influences, an assimilation of differences to create a new language of dance in India. In my opinion, it also helped Deboo to create a minimalist, inward-looking style.
The dialogue with other Indian dance traditions is of paramount importance for a practitioner who lived in a country such as India, where the classical traditions still hold supreme. In his own words, Deboo described his practice as, “contemporary in vocabulary and traditional in restraints”. This element in his artistic query makes Astad Deboo pivotal to contemporary Indian dance discourse. He was not a mimic, imitative of what he learnt in the West but created a style that he could call his own, showcasing a range of Indian influences true to his context. There was no disregard for classical traditions but a response to the classical and an attempt to build upon its existing vocabulary.
His collaborations with dhrupad exponents, Manipuri Pung Cholom drummers, children of Delhi, among others, show a practice anchored in dialogue. Deboo defied attempts to pigeonhole his practice. Taking dance beyond the proscenium space and extending the vocabulary to many others, he created collaborators for his work.
In 1967, he witnessed American modern dance as a college student in Mumbai and soon left for the US to learn further. In an interview, Deboo mentioned to me that the quest has been largely solitary. He said this in fluent Bangla, which he remembered from his childhood in Jamshedpur. His work was seen and recognised in India but getting the next performance or grant was never easy, especially because he was a contemporary male dancer. He also bemoaned that while we encourage cultural exchange, Indian dancers don’t receive a warm treatment in the West and gurus here are more accessible than they are overseas. However, that’s a different kind of teacher-student relationship, so to speak. Deboo never created a dance institution or became a traditional teacher of dance. He did workshops, guided young practitioners but the lion’s share of his time was dedicated to creating new choreographic work. In these attempts, he constantly sought new collaborators, thus opening new frontiers for himself as an artist and contemporary dance in India. I don’t think he wanted to be remembered through an institution and a host of disciples. Instead, he perhaps wished to be known for the dance language he pioneered and that he dared to be different.
(The writer teaches literary and cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune)