Astad Deboo assimilated many forms to create a new language of contemporary dance in India
As the author begins “This is a year of obituaries. And now Astad Deboo is also gone”. Astad Deboo, often referred to as the pioneer of modern dance in India, passed away earlier this week at the age of 73. This piece brings about his contribution to Indian art and the struggles on the way. Deboo, trained in Kathak and Kathakali, not only combined these two but several other Indian and foreign dance forms to develop his own unique dance form.
The author ponders if Deboo’s legacy should be integrated with broader classical dance history of India but is wary about the resistance from the classical establishment:
“At this point, it is perhaps worthy to reflect if there should be a separate history for contemporary dance in India or should it be integrated within the larger Indian dance history? There could be different views about that, but Deboo freely spoke about his influences, thus creating a transparent artistic practice. I say this with the awareness that the classical establishment remains wary about the contemporary and platforms to showcase contemporary dance work still continue to languish in the country. The ongoing pandemic has complicated things further. When Deboo began his journey as a dancer in India, he was faced with similar challenges and the larger hostility of the classical dance establishment that disfavored his forays.
Trained in the classical Indian dance traditions of Kathak and Kathakali, Deboo’s dance and choreographic practice in several ways showcased an ongoing dialogue between his training and exposure to western dance and theory such as Martha Graham, Pina Bausch, Alison Chase and various Indian dance traditions. He travelled the world, learnt martial art traditions amongst other forms and realised early in his life that his style will embody myriad influences, an assimilation of differences to create a new language of dance in India. In my opinion, it also helped Deboo to create a minimalist, inward-looking style.
The dialogue with other Indian dance traditions is of paramount importance for a practitioner who lived in a country such as India, where the classical traditions still hold supreme. In his own words, Deboo described his practice as, “contemporary in vocabulary and traditional in restraints”. This element in his artistic query makes Astad Deboo pivotal to contemporary Indian dance discourse. He was not a mimic, imitative of what he learnt in the West but created a style that he could call his own, showcasing a range of Indian influences true to his context. There was no disregard for classical traditions but a response to the classical and an attempt to build upon its existing vocabulary.”