With Astad Deboo's demise, Indian dance has lost one of its most beloved, paradigm-shifting artists
Astad Deboo’s voice, his memorable chakkars on stage, his prodigious talent in riveting performances, his infectious laugh, his impeccable ability to offer friendship to so many across the world have all been stopped in his untimely passing.
This column was first published on Narthaki.com and is being reproduced here with due permission.
“Our Contemporary dance in India has to evolve and be Indian Contemporary.” — Astad Deboo
Astad Deboo’s voice, his memorable chakkars on stage, his prodigious talent in riveting performances, his infectious laugh, his impeccable ability to offer friendship to so many across the world have all been stopped in his untimely passing. This news has shocked and devastated us, his dance fraternity and friends. The Indian dance world has lost one of its most paradigm-shifting and beloved artists.
Astad was my friend, as he was a friend to many across India and beyond. He had an uncanny ability to cultivate and nurture friendships, keeping in touch with phone calls and visits, even going out of his way. He was loved by so many — artists, and ordinary people with whom he created magical connections both on and off stage.
He trained dancers from wherever they came, treating them as human beings and as artists whether they were the deaf, or the youth at the Salaam Baalak Trust, or the drum dancers of Manipur whom he brought to the national and international stage — all mourn this monumental loss.
Astad’s artistic journey had many struggles but he was a deeply persevering individual. In the early days of his career, he experienced many rejections of his choreography that looked “too western” to Indians, and “not Indian enough” to viewers abroad. Through many setbacks, Astad stood tall. Always believing in his art, his faith and courage inspired others to keep fighting for their own artistic visions.
Astad was a humanitarian, in the tradition of a Zoroastrian whose generous heart and spirit led him to help many artists. During the 2020 lockdown, when he was still choreographing and training his dancers in Delhi, he had mentioned to me that he lay awake at nights thinking of how he could raise funds to support so many talented dancers, or to even provide daily sustenance to the children and their families at the Worli school.
Astad’s body of work spans 51 years as a professional dancer who performed in 72 countries. A remarkable artist in his 70s, he continued to create, dance and be a force on the Contemporary Indian Dance scene. His work includes solo and group choreography, and innovative collaborations with Manipuri artists, Indian musicians, with theater directors and musicians in Korea, Japan, parts of Europe and the US. In 1995, Astad was recognised with Sangeet Natak Academy’s Creative Dance Award, and in 2007, he earned the Government of India’s Padma Shri that recognised him as a pioneer of Contemporary Indian dance.
For many who saw Astad’s performances, there are so many, many incredible memories — in Breaking Boundaries with the Salaam Baalak youth whom he trained from their only exposure to Hindi film dance to imbibe his own meditative, slow, and balancing poses, always treating them as equals and not within India’s rigid caste and class hierarchies. He trained dancers of Chennai’s Clarke School for the Deaf in his work CounterPosition that was selected for the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympics in Melbourne, Australia in 2005. Astad’s choreographed works with Manipuri pung cholam dancers in Rhythm Divine I, Rhythm Divine II, and thang ta artists in Celebration were showcased across India, as well as in Santiago, Chile, in São Paulo, Brazil, and in cities across Europe.
More accolades resonate… For now, I am filled with a profound sense of loss of an incredible artist, a generous human being, and a thoughtful and caring friend. We will miss Astad deeply both on and off stage.
Ketu H Katrak is Professor — Department of Drama at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of Contemporary Indian Dance: New Creative Choreography in India and the Diaspora (Palgrave Macmillan). Astad Deboo and Prof Katrak are co-editors of “Contemporary Dance in India”, special issue of MARG: A Magazine of the Arts (2017).
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