He was the dancing king

PARSHATHY J NATH | Updated on December 12, 2020

Centre stage: Deboo’s love for Koodiyattam and Kathakali brought him closer to Kerala   -  BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

An ode to a friend who kept relationships and magic alive

* Astad Deboo had a loving bond with Kerala

* We just watched his hands move; they had magic in them

* Wherever he went, he would reach out to people


It was a cold December night, and students of a drama school in Thrissur were celebrating the dawn of a New Year. Soon, they were dancing outside the entrance to the Boy’s Hostel in the School of Drama & Fine Arts. Among those dancing joyously was a man who was clearly not a student.

Many couldn’t place him, but knew that he was someone renowned. The stranger also did not bother to tell them who he was. Perhaps it was because he was too busy dancing!

That was Astad Deboo, the pioneering modern dancer of India, on that December 31 night of 2011. He had spent the entire day at the school with Sreejith Ramanan, now the head of the department of the drama school and then an assistant professor there. “The students had decided to cut a cake to celebrate the day. We told him about this and he did not think twice before joining in on our celebration and dancing with the students,” Ramanan recalls.

Deboo — who died on December 10 at the age of 73 — had come to Thrissur to take part in the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFOK), organised in the southern Indian town by the state government every year. It was also an event for which the students of the drama institute actively volunteered.

Happy feet: Deboo dancing with students of Thrissur’s School of Drama & Fine Arts on December 31, 2011   -  BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT


“I had informed him about ITFOK and he was very keen to come and watch it. He is in the league of those who should be performing in the festival but he was roaming around the venue like an ordinary man talking to people. At that time, the students at the drama school were also working on an Indo-Spanish production. He wanted to watch the rehearsals, so he came to the campus,” says Ramanan.

Margi Reji, a Hyderabad-based theatre practitioner and former student of the drama institute, had also danced with Deboo that night, not knowing that the man in their midst was the internationally celebrated performer who had learnt Kathakali in Kerala, worked with masters such as Pina Bausch, danced with Pink Floyd on a Chelsea stage and choreographed Russian ballerina Maya Pliteskaya.

“He was interacting so freely with the students. Only after Sreejith ettan introduced him to us did we know his importance. He was just there to share a spirit of camaraderie with us,” Reji says.

It was while studying at the Intercultural Theatre Institute in Singapore that Ramanan first met Deboo. Ramanan, as the technical director of an Indian contemporary dance festival held in Singapore in 2007, interacted with the maestro who starred in the event.

“What caught my interest was how his hands made the first appearance in the performance. I remember how for the first 15 minutes we just watched his hands move; they had magic in them, and a slow and subtle quality,” Ramanan says.

At the same festival, Ramanan and his friend had presented a movement piece. Deboo watched them, and took a liking to them. The friendship developed over the years; he kept updating Ramanan on his latest tours and shows.

“We wanted to bring him to the campus to take a workshop. But he used to tour at an unbelievable pace. No other performer in India toured like him. It was very hard to get a date from him.”

Deboo returned to the institute in 2018, for the G Sankara Pillai Endowment Lecture. He delivered an engaging talk on movement vocabulary, Ramanan recalls.

“He badly wanted to perform at the ITFOK. He appreciated how participatory and popular it was, and how the audience accepted complex theatrical performances. He had a loving relationship with Kerala because of his love for forms such as Koodiyattam and Kathakali. Moreover, he has stayed here for many years to learn Kathakali, a form that he worked with very strongly. He would say we are so lucky to be from such a rich cultural space.”

He recalls “the most moving gesture” to their friendship from this stalwart of an artiste. This happened in 2014 when Ramanan was acting in segments of The Mahabharata, as part of a project helmed by the renowned Japanese director Hiroshi Koike at the ITFOK.

“I had messaged him about it. He said, ‘Oh you are in it? I will come’. He booked his flight to Kochi the next day. I thought he had another commitment here and had just added this to his schedule. But he had flown to Kerala for the sole purpose of watching our performance,” Ramanan says.

“Wherever he went, he would reach out to people, visit their houses, go to the grassroots — he really kept relationships alive.”

Parshathy J Nath is a theatre artiste and writer based in Thrissur

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Published on December 12, 2020
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