As news of dance maestro Astad Deboo’s passing in the early hours of 10 December emerged, social media was flooded with tributes. Musician T.M. Krishna posted on Twitter: “He was a very special and generous human being, visionary and stunning dancer. When Astad danced, time did stand still!” Born in Navsari, Gujarat on 13 July 1947, Deboo started his dancing career in the 1960s in post-independence India, where the atmosphere was one of optimism. Last year in an interview, in November, just before his performance at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Deboo encapsulated his journey as “adventurous” and “full of ups and downs”. “I have stuck it out. Perseverance has paid off but it takes nerves of steel to endure this,” he said.
He moved to Jamshedpur at a very young age, where he was exposed to Indian classical dance. Deboo considered himself blessed to not be subjected to the negativity of being a solo male in the dance class. Later, when he came to Mumbai to pursue a degree in commerce, it was considered a done thing to have an Astad Deboo performance during the college functions. He was a dancer extremely comfortable in his own skin.
While in Mumbai, he witnessed performances by several international dance companies. The Murray Louis Dance company, in particular, had a huge impact on Deboo. “This was the first time I was seeing modern dance from the United States of America, and to see a group of dancers perform with such abandon and such synchronisation was amazing. Also the way they used space and lighting,” he said. Around this time, he was seeing ripples of innovation in visual arts, music and theatre, but nothing in dance. That motivated him to travel and observe what was happening in the field around the globe and thus his journey in dance began in 1969.
He has talked extensively about his adventurous backpack travels, like when he reached Iran on a cargo ship, sharing space with goats. Hailing from a middle-class family, with not enough funds to send Deboo to the US to learn dance, he decided to take the onus on himself.
Deboo became a professional in Iran itself, where he appeared on TV for a half-hour show. This opportunity was brought about by an Iranian disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar. He continued to travel, picking up nuances in Taiwan, Japan and Indonesia. This was significant as, at that time, there was hardly any dialogue between Asian artists, with most people looking to the West.
In 1984, Deboo choreographed East West Encounter. He had just come back after spending a year with the Wuppertal Dance Company, Germany. He had been invited by Pina Bausch, who had come to India on a tour in 1979. East West Encounter created quite a buzz when it was staged. For one, Deboo had used a lot of dialogue in his choreography, which was a story about a clerk called Joglekar. The piece also became controversial for its use of Bollywood music, which was shunned in certain high-art circles. “But I stood my ground. Spaces like the National Centre for the Performing Arts respected my artistic freedom and I have had a 40-year-long association with them,” Deboo had said.
Some of his really remarkable work emerged from his collaboration with the Pung Cholom drummers of Manipur, with pieces like Rhythm Divine-River Runs Deep. He also mentored children from the Salaam Baalak Trust, some of whom have now become professional dancers. Also significant is his work with hearing impaired performers, his last collaboration with a group from St Stephens School, Mumbai. This was his youngest group of students, aged between 8 and 14.
His first such choreography was with a group of actors in Kolkata, when he introduced movement in their acting. The piece, which was titled Dancing Dolphins, incorporated verses from Vikram Seth’s Beastly Tales. Deboo worked with groups from the Gallaudet University as part of their deaf performing arts programme, and later with the Clarke School for the Deaf, Chennai. With the latter, he created a landmark 60-minute non-stop performance. The show premiered in 2004 and went on till 2006, with 75 performances in all. The group, led by Deboo, even opened the 25th Deaf Olympics in Melbourne.
Over time, the one thing that became his signature was the twirl, which was an extremely powerful experience to watch. Calling himself a “frequent disco dancer” in the 1970s, Deboo discovered spinning. Even though he had learnt the chakkars in Kathak, his twirl was very different, one of his own making, and “nothing to do with the whirling dervish”. Last year, he wove a choreography around four of Mahatma Gandhi’s quotes, which in a way also reflected his own ethos. Titled Unbroken, Unbound, it sort of encapsulated the way Deboo approached his work and life: unfettered and unfazed.