Astad Deboo: A rebel who stood astride India's fledgling experimental arts scene, and dismantled notions of dance
Swimming against the tide, Astad Deboo forged an uncommon career that operated in its own niche perhaps, but has left behind an insurmountable legacy.
An indelible and iconic image of the city’s cultural kaleidoscope that is unlikely to fade away is that of the late Astad Deboo in performance — statuesque and obstinate in his stance; with a long, flowing, hand-stitched angrakha in swirling colours marking his turf; and a hand, taut and outstretched, carrying in its palm a signature gesture both still and turbulent. Deboo was the grand old man of Indian contemporary dance, and his passing this week leaves a void made all the more pronounced by the overlapping worlds he inhabited, and the liminal intersections he embraced with sangfroid nonchalance.
Deboo’s was an accomplished dance practice of more than five decades that found its distinctive vocabulary in the cusp between the modern and the traditional, the masculine and the feminine, the quotidian and the celestial. Trained in Kathak from a tender age, his journeyman apprenticeship included stints at Martha Graham and Pina Bausch, a year-long South American sojourn learning capoeira, before a revelatory return to roots — to Kathakali in Kerala, Thang-ta in Manipur, and classical Dhrupad.
These myriad influences fermented a hybridised and gendered style that was as spartan as it was full-flavoured, and continues to refuse categorisation.
Long before movement in theatre became a buzzword in India, Deboo created works that were powerfully theatrical and geared towards provocative spectatorship. His solo performances dismantled notions of what passed as dance, and he was a charged and emotive being on stage at the edge of a dervish’s reverie. As he once told Narthaki magazine, “I work with the rasas; though the work sometimes is abstract, the work has a lot of feeling to it. [When] I extend the hand, whether I'm doing Bhakti or Sringara rasa, [that's when it feels] as if I'm going into a trance.”
Fellow Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee Sunil Shanbag fondly remembers the time when he stood in for Deboo’s regular sound technician at the emergent Prithvi Theatre of the late 1970s. “It was one of his first solos. The soundscape was like nothing I had heard before, without the predictable peaks and drops of a standard issue musical score,” says Shanbag, who played the track from a tape-recorder. At one point Deboo inadvertently found himself in the soundless dark, but called out calmly, “Can I have my sound and lights back on? I haven’t finished yet.”
It marked the inauspicious but anecdote-worthy beginnings to a personal friendship and a long collaborative association of several decades — Shanbag has documented and executed lights for many of Deboo’s works and credits his understanding of theatre movement to the maestro. Circa 1991, in a rare ‘regular theatre’ outing, Deboo graciously performed in Shanbag’s staging of Vijay Tendulkar’s The Cyclewallah, as a figurative alter ego to the perambulating protagonist. “He was our first encounter with modern dance, I think. The idea of the physical in theatre as we know it today came through his experiments,” adds Shanbag.
One of Deboo’s more outré pieces was Broken Pane (1991), in which he embodied an addict, jabbing his veins with a hypodermic syringe several times during the performance. “It was raw and radical. Then there was a piece in which he plays a man who discovers his big toe. It was haunting — his adoration for a toe that was almost a child,” says Shanbag. In The Hindu, culture journalist Geeta Doctor describes another work exhibited at Prithvi, “The stage was dappled with blood [from] incisions he made with a blade. A flame singed the hair on his powerful forearms. [Finally] he contorted his body so that he became all tongue. The tongue became the dance. He licked his way across the stage wiping the dirt off the floor.” These productions blurred the line between abstract dance and idiosyncratic performance art, as Deboo grappled with his burgeoning virtuosity.
Another theatre personality closely associated with Deboo is Hidayat Sami, who pitched in and honed his skills as lights technician on many of his international tours including a particularly eventful South American outing with the show Celebration, accompanied by a posse of young Thang-ta performers from Manipur. “We were held at gunpoint at São Paulo by drugs goons, en route to Quito. We were made to lie on the floor, like in a film,” remembers Sami, laughing at the memory. It was Deboo’s proficiency in Portuguese, likely acquired during the capoeira summer, that got them off, sans the most precious of their belongings.
“He was truly multifaceted: he knew many languages, worked with the abled and the disabled, and could perform anywhere, from art galleries to schoolyards or just a ladder,” explains Sami, who counts Deboo and Satyadev Dubey as his foremost mentors. Both pioneers incidentally shared the same birthday (13 July), and while they could be a yin-and-yang study in contrasts, they were kindred spirits with a shared rigour and finesse, and rebels who stood astride a fledgling experimental arts scene that was ripe for the taking, without flinching one eye.
In a 2017 interview with Deccan Chronicle, Deboo had said, "...There were those who questioned the viability of dance as a career. I forged ahead in my journey and my search, regardless..." Swimming against the tide, Deboo indeed forged an uncommon career that operated in its own niche perhaps, but has left behind an insurmountable legacy.