Dancer who blended custom with modernity

Nonika Singh

In a way, he represented the spirit of modern India. Born in 1947 when India got independence, at Navsari, Gujarat, renowned dancer and choreographer Astad Deboo created new frontiers of dance as well as surpassed many. Deemed too western and not Indian enough at one point, he went on to create a grammar of dance, best described in his own words, “style was contemporary in vocabulary and traditional in restraint”.

Trained in both kathak and kathakali, he was to amalgamate the two seemingly disparate classical styles and put his unique stamp. Of course, he also went on to learn Martha Graham’s modern dance technique. In New York, it was José Limón’s technique that he imbibed. If he trained with the very best, including celebrated German choreographer Pina Bausch, he collaborated with who’s who such as Pink Floyd, Gundecha Brothers, Dadi Pudumjee. Why back in time he was commissioned by Pierre Cardin to choreograph a dance for Maya Plisetskaya — prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet.

Purists in the Indian dance world might have been reluctant to work with him, those from other disciplines were only too eager and he was too happy to find the binding factor in the rhythm of their work. Bouncing off the technique of his collaborators against his own, he would create an idiom that imbibed from the world inspired by influences as varied as Balinese dancing, Japanese Kabuki and traversed the same.

Performing solo as well as in group choreography around the world in as many as 70 countries, in spaces as unique as a museum, a street, the Great Wall of China, his signature style was fusion in the best sense of the word. As he himself put it, “it evolved from energetic and entertaining to minimalist and introspective, from the narrative to the abstract”. When awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi honour the citation read: He has created a dance-theatre style which successfully assimilates Indian and Western techniques. Padma Shri may have come to him when he was 60 but was no less gratifying for it came without any lobbying. But then he never cared to market his dance only spread it far and wide.

Age was just a number for the contemporary dancer who was active on stage till recently creating an ode to Mahatma Gandhi, another one on migrant workers during the lockdown. Today, when the word contemporary is used without much thought by practitioners sans rigour, they need to look up to this trailblazer to comprehend how tradition and modernity can meet seamlessly.

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