Dancing into eternity…

Remembering Astad Deboo, the man who made modern dance an instrument of reaching out

Image Courtesy:indulgexpress.com

For young audiences in India, the first encounter with Astad Deboo was a shocker. Was this a dance performance? Or was this a magical illusion? Like a superhero he moved from one corner of the stage to another, however with a fluidity that was never seen before. He moved like flowing water at one time, like the breeze at another, and sometimes sizzled like a flame. Deboo held performances of the contemporary dance form he fathered by combining his training in Kathak, and Kathakali traditions. He showcased a lot of performances across the country, with many audiences young and old, who gasped at the beginning, and were almost always on their feet applauding at the end. That he wore richly coloured flowing robes, that moved and flowed along with his body added to the magic,

Deboo (73) passed away in Mumbai after a brief illness on December 10. The art and cultural fraternity is mourning his passing, and celebrating his life with their own personal memories of him.  




Then there is the other side to this world renowned dancer; his support to secular, socio cultural organisations. He would stand in solidarity, volunteer his time, and his performance regularly. Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (Sahmat) was one such collective, Sahmat’s rich tribute tribute to Astad Deboo may be read here:  

“The greatest modern dancer that we have had the privilege of knowing is no more. Astad Deboo was a phenomenally talented dancer and choreographer. He had learnt Kathak as a child in Jamshedpur, was exposed to modern western dance in his college days at Bombay and travelled to the UK and enrolled at the Martha Graham academy, returned to India to learn Kathakali under Guru E. Krishna Panikar and then he combined all this and more, everything that he had learnt through his journeys through the US, Japan, Europe and Indonesia into a form that was uniquely his own.  

What made him really great was his ability not only to combine diverse dance forms, vastly different rhythm patterns and choreographic movements into a comprehensive whole that was creatively stunning but also his engagement with the world all around. His deep concern for the world of the deprived, marginalised and ignored made him draw the children of the Salam Balak trust, and hearing impaired students of the Clarke School of the Deaf and travelled with these students all over the world. He drew in the Thang-Pa drummers from the secluded monastic traditions from Manipur and presented them on the world stage. Through his work he showed that all that is needed for creativity to flourish is an opportunity and he made it possible for many of these children to realise their dreams.

Astad was constantly travelling conducting workshops, performing, choreographing mega events and yet he made it a point to be in Delhi on 1st January, to perform at the Safdar Hashmi Memorial. Astad Deboo’s association with Sahmat is as old as Sahmat, he was among the artists who performed at the Safdar Samaroh on 12th-16thApril 1989. Beginning with that first event Astad stood with Sahmat unwaveringly, because he would not compromise with his commitment to an inclusive, democratic, secular and creatively free India.”  

Another emotional tribute was shared by eminent writer, director and actor MK Raina who wrote: 

“Losing a friend and brother Astad Deboo has shattered me and my family. We were family in Delhi for him for the last 40 years or more. Wherever he was on this planet, he made sure to be in touch with each one of us. I fondly used to call him HAMAAL JAMAL KAMAAL, because he was his own peon, performer and persuader. He was a creative giant, who danced everywhere from the Great Wall of China to the Alps and made friends in all the five continents. Today there will be mourning all over, his loss will be felt personally by each one whose life he had touched and he touched everyone he met because his very being was infectiously friendly. People in high art will mourn him, his Manipuri dancers will be praying for his beautiful soul, his Delhi Dancers from among the economically marginalised will be in shock to lose him; the physically challenged children he helped grow into accomplished dancers will feel his absence.

All these beautiful people whom he had trained into becoming world class dancers had travelled with him to high art venues of the world to perform and show how the weakest can conquer the world with their talent. Astad constantly worried about the wellbeing and survival of these young dancers, the spread of the covid pandemic saw Astad raising funds for his dancers and supporting them through the Astad Deboo foundation. He was a true Guru in the Indian sense, constantly caring and providing for the welfare of his Shishyas. He was pained at the plight of the Indian performers and about the absence of support systems in our country and he did all he could on his own.

The Last chat I had with him was when he was in hospital, he had recovered some of his strength and made a video call from his bed and he said “yes yes I am composing a dance piece here from my hospital bed.

He danced till the very end, his energy seemed inexhaustible. The pieces he composed and performed with his group of young dancers on all kinds of locations inspire a sense of awe and wonder. He could not get his tests done during this lockdown, and he must have been in great pain and yet he continued. He never rested.

Now rest my brother and friend I will miss you. I still remember the time more than 4 decades ago, as if it was only yesterday, when you came home and cooked Dhansak for all of us on Diwali.

Good bye Astad my Brother.”

Astad was one of the artists from across India who came together in 2018, under the banner of “Artists Unite!” and signed a declaration with the intention of reinforcing public traditions that speak “for democracy, and against hate”. The signatories had cautioned that the ongoing assault on culture was an attack on democracy and asserted that “Democracy is not a majoritarian project to identify enemies and enforce uniformity of language, behaviour and culture. Democracy is the celebration of a collective will for peace, of living together with dignity and equality.”

The words need repeating today.


Eminent Hindi poet and journalist Manglesh Dabral passes away 
Hindi literature and journalism will always remember the rich contribution
Artists Unite: More Than 450 Artists Sign On a Declaration for Democracy and Against Hate 



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