Astad Deboo: The last twirl

Astad Deboo was always able to dance his way through the direst challenges. But sadly not this time

Updated - December 10, 2020 06:23 pm IST

Published - December 10, 2020 06:04 pm IST

Astad Deboo in ‘Interpreting Tagore’

Astad Deboo in ‘Interpreting Tagore’

“My dance is a confluence of cultures, though rooted in the dynamics of India’s Kathakali and Kathak. I have combed the world cultures for material and mated them with indigenous traditions to create a unique impact on the senses.” — Astad Deboo, in Contemporary Dance in India , by Ketu Katrak

My phone registered a missed call from Astad’s number on November 27 at 12.13 pm. It was followed immediately by a terse text: ‘Please call. Urgent’. At 12.21, another missed call. This was unlike Astad. He would normally brighten up our dull WhatsApp screens with his astonishing photographs, taken in the most exotic places. The sweep of his flowing dress slicing the air on The Great Wall of China, smiling from The Bean in Chicago, his silhouette shimmering against a lake in Sweden, each image was of a life lived to the fullest.

I returned his call. His voice was sombre. ‘I have Stage 4 cancer. But I am staying positive. Am going into the hospital with the best care.’ I was silent throughout the call, unable to speak. But in my mind I knew Astad would dance and find a way through the most dire challenge. After all, this was the imprint of his life — to leapfrog over roadblocks and twirl across continents, to almost stop time with his Zen-like stillness. Astad with the flourish of his signature floor-kissing angarkhas, his dazzling diva-like strut, and his slightly lifted shoulders, always ready to emote.

He remained connected with his close friends through the WhatsApp group that he had created. We kept sending our prayers and warm wishes. His sister Gulshan kept us updated about his health until the dreaded three words, ‘He is gone’, appeared on our phone screens at 1.01 a.m. on December 10.

Astad’s contemporaries across disciplines and beyond dance were enriched by his mind and heart. He took pride in his Zoroastrian heritage and his private life was held closely with immense dignity. There was hardly any aspect that he did not touch upon or exert his influence on. Dance, theatre, music, design, fashion, photography, special needs, community welfare, all found a seamless expression in his unique oeuvre.

As a classical dancer who segued easily into contemporary territory, Astad was completely supportive of my initiatives. Whenever I visited Mumbai, he would make time to meet for coffee, or sit in on the rehearsal or talk that I was involved in. When he complimented my young team after the NCPA performance of ‘Padme’, it was a genuine gesture of encouragement, one that left an indelible impression on those young minds.

When I launched ‘Boxed’ at the height of the pandemic, he made time to watch each episode of the 7-week series and never failed to appreciate the ideas and experiments of the young dancers. The pandemic did not deter this lone warrior. With his scheduled performances across the world postponed to 2022, he plunged into the digital world and requested that his beautiful short films Boundaries, 1.0 and 2.0, be premièred on the Narthaki platform.

There are so many moments with Astad Deboo that I remember today. That day in 2019 in Chicago during a day-long rehearsal of ‘Inai - The Connection’ (a collaboration with Hema Rajagopalan), when he was excited like a newcomer since he was collaborating for the first time with a classical dance company.

I watched the quiet and diplomatic manner in which he negotiated his place in the large group of dancers and musicians with multiple and often opposing viewpoints, yet always stressing on professionalism and technical preparation.

I recall the first time I watched his signature twirling and the many occasions I have had the privilege to present him — at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha during the Margazhi festival, twice at The Other Festival (he even took a flight at a two-hour notice to step in for Ileana Citaristi, who had sprained a muscle), and at ‘Purush’, the dance conference in 2013. The interactions were always warm, professional and never overstated.

He meticulously adhered to a daily routine of stretching and breathing. I was envious of his unique method of movement that had aged like fine wine, just like his body and pedagogy.

The spirit of dance

He spoke sadly, and sometimes with a tinge of bitterness, of how publishers were not interested in his life’s journey or his amazing collection of photographs and travelogues. But nothing could dampen his spirit to dance, even if it was for a small audience.

The invitees at a private gathering in Chennai were awe-struck when he created a choreographic piece sitting on the window sill and balancing on the sloping roof. I have, with several others, sat for over an hour in the cold of the Delhi winter, watching Astad’s breathtaking solo under a huge tree accompanied by a Japanese musician.

The last time I watched Astad on stage was at Kalakshetra in February this year. It was an Indo-Korean collaboration titled, ‘Same But Different’. The venue and the moment were serendipitous. I imagined the smile on Rukmini Devi’s face as she watched a fellow non-conformist tread the stage at her lovingly created institution. One may think that with their ideology and approach they occupied opposite ends of the dance world, but what they shared was the courage to dream differently.

There will be nobody like Astad Deboo. To call him a friend is a privilege, and I am but one of hundreds whose lives he has touched beyond our core disciplines. Smiling and composed in his trademark white kurta and churidar off stage, he can’t be forgotten.

He faced hostility in his early years, but refused to be bogged down by the relentless criticism. He danced through the blind spots of many a cynic, and remained steadfastly engaged with dance.

Evoking Tagore’s image in ‘Ekla Chalo Re’, I imagine Astad, walking alone — upward and onward. Adieu, my friend.

The writer is a contemporary performer, arts entrepreneur, and founder of

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