When Astad Deboo took the stage , it was difficult to fathom when Kathak merged into Kathakali and when Martha Graham dance technique made its presence felt. Holistic in comprehending the Indian and Western dance aesthetics, Deboo imbued modern dance with a narrative form of treatment and blended facial expressions with body movements to tell tales of contemporary India.
His chakkars sent the audience into a trance-like state while his socio-political concepts stirred their conscience and kept them rooted to the ground realities. From the bucolic poetry of Bulleh Shah to the biting text of Manto, nothing was outside the enchanting web that one of the pioneers of contemporary dance in India wove on the stage.
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In January this year, he dedicated performance in Ahmedabad to the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University. Born into a Parsi family, he described himself as a Hindustani first and maintained that artists should be more vocal about the issues that untune society. Many of his works had political undertones. Inspired by Muktibodh’s poem, “ Lakdi Ka Ravan ” explored how our leaders have feet of clay. In “Rhythm Divine: River Runs Deep”, he collaborated with Manipuri drummers to bring out the political turmoil in the region.
Astad Deboo spread the horizons of dance as he performed on the Great Wall China and the ramparts of Mehrangarh Fort. He loved performing in natural surroundings like the river bank of Narmada in Maheshwar. For him, the arches and jharokas were not just a backdrop but a part of his performance. Another integral part of his dance was his enchanting costumes which added to his aesthetic flight on stage. It was on display earlier their year when he and his troupe danced in Khadi angarkhas and flared dhotis as they paid tribute to the Mahatma through a performance called “Unbroken, Unbowed”. Not accepted as a dancer at the beginning of his career, it also reflected his resolve not to bow to those who tried to put him into a box.
Also read: Astad Deboo, the creative traveller
He could do what classical artists were not ready to explore. A showstopper, old-timers say, he once arrived on stage in an Ambassador car to the sound of sirens to perform “ Lakdi Ka Ravan ”.
It took the purists time to understand the seamless fusion of ideas and forms that he created on stage but gradually as it dawned upon them that instead of diluting, Deboo is opening new vistas for classical forms, doors opened to prestigious festivals like the Khajuraho and the Elephanta. He was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1996.
Born in Navsari, Gujarat on July 13, 1947, he was introduced to Kathak by guru Prahlad Das when he was six. Years later, he learnt Kathakali under guru E Krishna Panicker after exploring the West where he mastered the modern dance techniques of Martha Graham and Jose Limon in London and New York respectively. He collaborated with several international artists included Pina Bausch, Alison Becker Chase and Pink Floyd and always ensured what he drew from different cultures complimented his work. In love with Dhrupad, he also collaborated with classical musicians such as the Gundecha Brothers and Rudra Veena exponent Bahauddin Dagar. And in a lighter mood, he would say he perfected his twirls in the discotheques of Mexico.
Having performed at the Guruvayur temple, the Padma Shri once told this journalist while Uday Shankar amalgamated most Indian dance forms, he brought in a new body language. “I did go to the West but I didn’t imitate the West. I learnt Kathakali to strengthen my vocabulary of body movements and acquire tools to express my stories. Like Indian classical dance can’t teach you how to do a split, western dance forms can’t make you bring out bhakti bhava and shringar rasa,” he said.
Going beyond the traditional mythical episodes, in “Asylum”, Deboo created a mad man’s love for the edge of his foot by bringing in his training in Kathakali to bring out the complex relationship between the mind and the body. Inspired by Pina Bausch’s work, where she played with dance and theatre, in “Insomnia” and “Mangalore Street”, he collaborated with theatre practitioner Sunil Shanbag to aesthetically juxtapose the two art forms.
A humanist, Deboo worked extensively with the deaf and underprivileged street children. For “Breaking Boundaries”, he trained 14 children from the Salaam Balak Trust.
His agility and exploration of body movements made him a sought after name in film industries across India but Deboo worked with only a select few such as M.F. Husain, Mani Ratnam, and Vishal Bhardwaj. He surprised many when for Mani Ratnam, he choreographed an escape sequence picturised on Aishwarya Rai in Ravan. S till etched in people’s minds, it shows how a creative soul can transcend space and form.
Part radical, part traditional, Deboo danced like a warrior to express unspoken throttled voices.