I am angry. I am angry on behalf of Astad Deboo. I should be delighted with all the flowery tributes and eulogies in print and on television. I want to shout, “Where were you all when he struggled for his livelihood, barely subsisting between work, giving him a pittance for his performances?”
I would listen to Astad’s stories after his frustrating day. A bureaucrat had arbitrarily decided to cut his payment in half. It didn’t cover his costs after he paid for his accompanying Manipur dancers’ travel and stay. He’d gone to pick up his cheque from another bureaucrat who told him to come next week, next month, next whenever. A few event impresarios squeezed him for every paisa, sensing his need for work. Society ladies nonchalantly asked him to perform for free at his own cost, promising good exposure. Astad went to a CSR corporate honcho to fund dance classes for deaf children. He was told, “We’re not into the deaf any more. We’re into slum children.” The feat of teaching deaf children to dance to a beat they could not hear was lost on most. He would switch off the music in the last lap of the performance and their dancing to silence would transport the audience to a yet unknown reality. The deaf children’s silent reality.
I told Astad his attitude was far too obsequious with bureaucrats and impresarios. I said he should be arrogant and kick the furniture around. That’s how artists with much less talent than him were treated well. But he was not arrogant and could not even put it on temporarily. Work in India got sparse. He travelled constantly all over the world, wherever he got a job. I want it to be known how underrated he was and how he was forced to struggle, struggle, struggle, in his own country.
We met 40 years ago, when I was reporting on his dance performance in New York. What developed was an affinity that I now realise is rare and near impossible. We went through being hippies with little money and then rocked our way through Studio 54. As his dance developed, so did my journalism. We returned to India and Astad had a home with us in Delhi. We poured out confidences to each other. We gossiped and laughed till we cried. I knew he would never repeat what I told him.
Astad told me his experiences of the Vietnam war. When I asked him what he was doing there, he answered as if it should have been obvious, “To see the war, silly!” He broke his ribs when he got thrown off a huge rock on a beach in Brazil while posing for a photo shoot in billowing chiffon. He admitted that morning he had eaten food offerings to the sea goddess placed on the beach and his friends had warned him of consequences. There are endless stories.
Astad was the only friend who never ever judged me. When I moaned on about a problem I had, far smaller than his, he never gave me “the other side”, “you’re making a big deal over nothing”, “you’re imagining it”, etc. When I was worried, he never said, “Don’t worry”. He worried with me. His innate compassion overrode everything. He left me wanting to be that kind of friend.
A friend like Astad Deboo can happen only once in your life. A relationship like that can happen only once in a lifetime. How does one come to terms that it could only last as long as his lifetime?
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 16, 2020 under the title ‘I Am Angry, For Astad’. The writer is a journalist