An undated photo of Indian contemporary dancer Astad Deboo during a performance. Deboo passed away at 73 in Mumbai.(HT Photo)
An undated photo of Indian contemporary dancer Astad Deboo during a performance. Deboo passed away at 73 in Mumbai.(HT Photo)

Astad Deboo dies; artistes say India has lost a cultural treasure

Deboo employed his training in Indian classical dance forms of Kathak as well as Kathakali to create a unique fusion dance form.
By Vanessa Viegas | Mumbai
UPDATED ON DEC 10, 2020 09:27 PM IST

Astad Deboo, pioneer of modern dance in India, died in Mumbai on Thursday, aged 73. He had been diagnosed with cancer in November.

Deboo was an exponent of Kathak and Kathakali, but was best known and loved for promoting fusion dance that broke barriers of style, culture and nationality. He was one of the first Indians to do so.

The dancer is survived by his sisters, Kamal Deboo and Gulshan Deboo.

“He left us in the early hours of December 10… after a brief illness, bravely borne. He leaves behind a formidable legacy of unforgettable performances combined with an unswerving dedication to his art, matched only by his huge, loving heart that gained him thousands of friends and a vast, number of admirers,” his family said in a statement released online.

Astad Deboo was always ahead of his time, friend and Bharatanatyam luminary Leela Samson said, speaking to HT on Thursday. “Going back 50 years, I would say he was a shy person. He carved for himself a very personal and also a very lonely journey because he was first among the contemporary dancers in the country. Even there he didn’t follow any Western norms. He went about his work in his own way. Whether it was in his costumes or his Sufi dervishes, he used his body in a way that was very much himself.”

He was the kind of person who always kept in touch, she added. “We had a lot in common. He was a Bombay boy. I was a Bombay girl. And we were not from traditional families of dancers. When we spoke a week ago, he sounded very much in control. He was in a positive state of mind until the very end.”

Born on July13, 1947 in Navsari, Gujarat, Deboo studied Kathak under Prahlad Das and later Kathakali under EK Pannicker. In his 20s he studied the Martha Graham dance technique in London and Jose Limon’s technique in New York.

He is said to have performed in over 70 countries, in solo, group and collaborative performances. His is a legacy filled with remarkable moments — a chance performance with Pink Floyd in London in 1969, a commission by Pierre Cardin, being asked to choreograph a piece for Maya Plisetskaya, prima ballerina of the Bolshoi ballet company. He performed at the Great Wall of China, the Guruvayur temple in Kerala and the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi.

“He didn’t live in a bubble. He was a person who was concerned about others. He lived with honesty and conviction,” acclaimed Bharatanatyam exponent Malavika Sarukkai said, referring to his work with deaf children.

He founded The Astad Deboo Dance Foundation in 2002 to provide opportunity and creative training to marginalised street children and provide artistic development to deaf dancers.

Deboo received the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1995, for his contribution to contemporary creative dance. He received the Padma Shri in 2007.

He choreographed for films a few times, including for Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara (2006) and the legendary painter MF Hussain’s 2004 movie, Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities.

“His support for young artistes was remarkable. He would frequently come to the NCPA to watch senior and junior performers, attend workshops and discussions,” said Swapnokalpa Dasgupta, head of dance programming at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai.

Sarukkai recalled an incident from many years ago, a testimony to Deboo’s warmth. “I was performing in London and my light designer hadn’t got his visa. The performance was in the South Bank and it was an important premiere,” she said. “And Astad was there. He came in and saw my rehearsal, took furious notes on a little piece of paper. And he told me, ‘You don’t worry Malavika, you go ahead I will do whatever I can for the lights’. And it was quite unforgettable, because he was there for me. He always stood by his friends.”

Dasgupta describes him as “a senior so affectionate and unbiased, a loving soul so giving and sensitive”. “My prayers for his family and friends,” Dasgupta said. “As for our dance community, this loss is irreparable.”

According to Padma Alva, a longtime friend of Deboo and a former PTI journalist, his funeral was a private affair due to the COVID-19 restrictions.

“The funeral was held at Worli here at 11 am. It was a private funeral because of COVID restrictions. So only immediate family members were present,” Alva said.

Deboo is noted for creating a modern dance vocabulary that was uniquely Indian. He once said there was a time when most Indians saw his style as “too western” while westerners found that it was “not Indian enough”.

His innovative style of Indian dance may have raised some eyebrows in the 1970s and 80s, but the 1990s saw people embrace this new idiom. Recalling their bond of over four decades, Alva said she has lost a a “friend of a lifetime.””Astad called me a few days ago to say it was goodbye.

We were in touch every day till Monday when he went under, never to come up again. Have lost a friend of 45 years, a friend of a lifetime,” Alva said.

Actor Anupam Kher took to Twitter to pay tributes to the dance icon and wrote Deboo’s art would be missed.

“World of modern dance has lost a pioneer and India has lost a cultural treasure. Dearest #AstadDeboo it was a privilege to know you. Will miss your art, warm persona and your infectious smile! Rest in peace my friend!!#OmShanti,” Kher said.

Filmmaker Nandita Das said Deboo had a lot of dance still left in him. “Just too sad. Knew him and admired him since I was a child. You still had so much to offer #AstadDeboo I have lost too many loved ones this year,” Das wrote.

Describing Deboo as a “powerhouse of talent”,music composer Ehsaan Noorani tweeted that the dancer was a man “who pushed the dimensions of dance.”Casting director Tess Joseph said Deboo was not only a generous person but a “visionary and stunning dancer.” “When Astad danced, time did stand still,” Joseph said.

(With input from PTI)

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