A large-hearted rebel

A large-hearted rebel

A tribute to Astad Deboo, considered to be a pioneer of modern dance in India.

Astad Deboo.PTI

It was a phone call from his son in Indonesia that brought in the dreadful news — that Astad Deboo had passed away, recalls veteran puppeteer Puran Bhat. Astad was his “dost and bhai” with whom he had presented innumerable shows over the years.

A call to a common friend and the news was confirmed. “I was shattered,” says Bhat, echoing the thoughts of art aficionados the moment they heard the news. Indeed, the world of dance has been left bereft with the passing on of Astad Deboo due to cancer at the age of 73.

And much as he would have liked to, Bhat was unable to go for the last rites because of travel restrictions. The artiste’s association with Deboo goes back to the 1980s. “Early during the lockdown, I had spoken to him to convey a message from the artistes of the Kathputli Colony who make a living only from what they earn on a daily basis. Now out of work, these artistes were in dire straits, so Deboo helped organise funds for them. A few months later, he called me again to ask if any more help was required and sent in more money from his personal account. That is the kind of person he was.” 

Going back in time, Bhat remembers being fascinated by Deboo’s art from the first time he saw him on stage. “I have seen a lot of contemporary dancers perform, but Astad was much ahead of his time. Aise kalakaar roz roz paida nahin hote (such artistes are rare).”

Full of zest 

While extremely dedicated and serious about his dance, Deboo was a different person altogether off stage, remembers Bhat. Once in Brazil, when everyone had gone to the beach, Bhat stayed away from the water. “Despite my telling him that I didn’t know swimming, he pushed me into the sea saying, ‘Paani se kya darna’ (why be afraid of water).”

And whenever there’d be a performance in Mumbai, Deboo would insist that Bhat and his team stay at his place. “A perfect host, he would often cook fish for all of us. That was the kind of apnaapan (warmth) he had. He never let anyone know the extent of his suffering and always remained so full of life,” he reminisces.

Fellow contemporary dancer of French origin, Gilles Chuyen, who has made India his home for the past 24 years, calls Deboo a man of “great poise, with a silent mystery about him”. Remembering the first time he saw Deboo perform, Chuyen says, “Astad Deboo was a master of fusion — of Kathak, Kathakali and contemporary moves. He had also collaborated with celebrities such as Christian Dior, Pink Floyd and Pina Bausch. Needless to say, I was impressed, but when I saw him perform, I could see that there was so much more to him.”

Chuyen is talking about the Martha Graham technique, Deboo’s love for fabric, for the exuberance of flowing costumes, his connection with North-East India through Pung Cholom of Manipur, his attention to detail and use of colours and his contrasts in choreography. “In short, I would say, he embodied the world and aesthetics of contemporary dance with very personal movements and vocabulary that were nurtured by his roots and hunger to explore the world.”

Staying connected

But what Chuyen admired most about Deboo was his desire to always reach out and stay connected with his audience.

“Besides doing these massive, spectacular shows, he also liked to share the gift of dance with people from all walks of life.” 

With an association that goes back nearly 40 years, dance historian Ashish Khokar says that Deboo burst onto the Indian dance scene when the concept of contemporary modern dance in India was still in its infancy. “With his hunger to explore and learn, he created a stellar niche for himself in the world of modern dance.”

And over the years, Khokar says, Deboo became one of the few Indian artistes to have travelled the world twice over, regaling audiences with his style of dance, “which was a beautiful amalgam of many cultures — be it Greek or Moroccan, belly dancing of Egypt, the hand movements of Indonesian dance and Balinese eye movements, ballet...you name it.”

Khokar says, Deboo created languorous movements to suit his physicality in the twilight years of his life. “They were no less artistic and beautiful. Artistes like him will always be missed.”