Astad Deboo, passed away today (10th Dec 2020), in Mumbai. Considered a pioneer of contemporary dance, Astad fought his way to carve his special niche. The path was not an easy one, especially with the friction between classical and contemporary dance. In his words, “Being a professional classical dancer in India is hard. All of us know that. But being a contemporary dancer based upon one’s classical training is harder. Sometimes one is tempted to feel pessimistic about the future, as I sometimes felt. Made even worse… is the lack of understanding I have sometimes encountered even among my peers… Is it an impossibility to imagine a future in which the two kinds of dance, the traditional with its broad, well-established systems and the contemporary, still in the process of finding its way, could sustain and nurture one another in creating its own expanding, developing universe? I don’t think so, for, through this, the ultimate victor will be dance itself.”
Astad started learning Kathak at the tender age of six from the late Indra Kumar Mohanty and the late Prahlad Das. He did follow the mainstream path of pursuing his degree, commerce that is. While pursuing his degree in Mumbai he happened to see the contemporary dance of the American Murray Louis Dance Company, which left him inspired. Shortly afterward, artist Uttara Asha Coorlawala who was studying dance in New York visited Mumbai and helped him join Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance in New York. Deboo left Bombay in 1969, on board a cargo boat that set sail from Bombay port, and later hitchhiked his way through Europe to eventually reach New York in 1974.
After this, there was no stopping him. He joined the London School of Contemporary Dance and eventually started developing his unique style. His choreographed performances were initially looked upon with skepticism. Today, Deboo is noted for creating a modern dance vocabulary that was uniquely Indian. 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. With a dance career spanning half a century, he had performed in over 70 countries, including solo, group, and collaborative choreography with artistes, at home and abroad. He was also an active supporter of progressive politics.
The artist community from around the world is deeply shocked by Astad’s sudden demise. Tributes have been pouring in. He has been a source of inspiration for many. Astad was also a good friend and mentor, always reachable and welcoming. A photographer mentioned that the last message he had received from Astad a week ago was a note of thank you. “Thank you for Photographing me all these years”, Astad had said in that personal message. In fact, it is our privilege that we get to see these remarkable photographic visuals. Each one of us is indebted to these known and unknown photographers for these living pictures. As we mourn the loss of India’s cultural treasure, PhotoMail brings together select photographs of Astad Deboo. Astad Deboo will live forever, in loving memory.