It was after a long lapse I had the privilege to listen to the late dancer and choreographer Saroj Khan when she invited me as a guest speaker at the Artists Conclave in Bangalore, as part of the silver jubilee celebrations of Abhinava Dance Academy in February this year. Despite looking frail, the moment she started speaking about dance and her experience in Bollywood, there was a glow on her face.
Saroj Khan had a long and illustrious career. She started as a group dancer and later became an assistant to the then top dance director Sohanlal, who was her mentor too. Saroj later started working independently, and subsequently emerged as the numero uno choreographer in Bollywood.
The choreographer had worked with some popular actresses from the film industry, and was a force to reckon with on the sets — no heroine dared defy masterji’s orders. “Hum naach ke saath kisi prakaar ka compromise nahi kar sakte,” Saroj had once said. Calling Madhuri Dixit Nene and Sridevi two of her best, Saroj revealed it too Hema Malini a while to adapt to the Bollywood ‘nazakhat’ and ‘adaa’, being a trained Bharatanatyam dancer. The National Award winner’s contribution to dance cannot be summed in just a few hundred words. Several of her disciples and assistants are now some of Bollywood’s best choreographers. Her passing away in July was a blow to the film industry, which was still grappling with the loss of several other stalwarts.
A few months after Saroj Khan’s death, another loss to Indian contemporary dance was the passing away of Astad Deboo (December 10). With his unconventional approach and presentation, Deboo became famous for combining two dance forms (Kathak and Kathakali), and making it is his own unique style. Trained in Indian classical dance styles like Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Kathak, Deboo also sought guidance from the iconic modern dancer Martha Graham and Pilobolus dance company.
While he had several national and international performances to his credit, I vividly remember two of them. First one is from the Elephanta Festival, when the audience was spellbound with his graceful moves, and the other one is his performance at NCPA, where, through his unique, captivating dance style, he presented ‘Thanatomorphia’, a festival in Indonesia where death is celebrated. The Padmashri and Sangeet Natak Akademi Award recipient lost his battle with cancer, leaving a void in the contemporary dance field.