Born a month before Independence, Astad Deboo broke free of the traditional dance forms to create a modern idiom of rhythm and movement that was uniquely Indian and all his own.
Avant-garde, unconventional, pioneer. the epithets were many for the artiste who defied societal norms of gender and 'regular' career choices to become one of India's first and perhaps most well known contemporary dancers.
Deboo, who once termed his art "contemporary in vocabulary and traditional in restraint", died on Thursday at the age of 73 leaving behind his two sisters and legions of fans and friends.
From Kathak to Kathakali and ballet to Bharatnatyam, his art synthesized them all to create a modern dance vocabulary that found space in varied stages - as much at home in the Guruvayoor temple as at the Great Wall of China - and before varied audiences.
The range was bewildering, going all the way from performing with rock band Pink Floyd at London's Chelsea Town Hall and Dhrupad singers, the Gundecha Brothers, to Pina Bausch of the Wuppertal Dance Company in Germany and the Pung Cholom dancers of Manipur. All in a dance career that spanned half a century with performances, including solo, group and collaborative choreography, in over 70 countries,
"He was his own peon, performer, persuader and creative giant, who danced from the Great Wall of China to the mountains of Alps, everywhere. People in high art will mourn him, his Manipuri dancers will be praying for his beautiful soul, his dancers of Delhi from the economically weak backgrounds will be in shock, his physically challenged children will feel his absence," theatre actor-director and old time friend M K Raina said in a tribute on social media.
Just like the show must always go on, so did Deboo continue dancing right till the end when cancer took his life.
"He kept performing till about last month, not on stage but virtually. He was one of the most active performers. He had his Manipuri dancers, who'd perform at their own place. One of his boys would then edit it and then that collage video would be put online," said old friend and former PTI journalist Padma Alva. Describing him as a pioneer in modern dancing at a time when men weren't into it in India, she said initial reactions to his dance raised a lot of eyebrows but he was never the kind to be disheartened.
"The only fight he lost was against cancer. He had lymphoma," she said.
The man himself once said there was a time when most Indians saw his style as "too western" while westerners found that it was "not Indian enough".
It was perhaps his destiny as someone born in the year of India's independence that he evolved and grew just as the nation did.
Deboo was born on July 13, 1947 in Gujarat's Navsari town and spent his first six years in Kolkata after which his family shifted to Jamshedpur, where his father was employed with Tata Steel. His mother was a homemaker, and he had two sisters, Kamal and Gulshan.
The passion for dance took birth early. He learnt Kathak from Guru Prahlad Das at a young age and studied at Loyola School, Jamshedpur. After graduating in 1964, he moved to Mumbai and joined a bachelor's course in commerce at Podar College, Mumbai.
The shift to contemporary dance began when he saw a performance of the American Murray Louis Dance Company. There was no looking back after that.
"When Astad danced, time did stand still," said casting director Tess Joseph.
The dancer has gone - his movements frozen in the stillness of time.
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