Text: Prem Panicker. Photographs: Farrokh Chothia
An official at India's ministry of culture once damned the upcoming young dancer with faint praise: 'Deboo,' the official said, 'is a pioneer -- and pioneers are only recognised posthumously.'
Those long ago words, spoken by a bureaucrat standing guard at the gates of Indian dance to protect it from philistines who would introduce new ideas, new thoughts, a whole new lifeblood, acquired poignancy April 5 this year, when President A P J Abdul Kalam pinned the Padma Shri on the breast of Astad Aderbad Deboo, for his contributions to Indian art.
After close to 40 years of wandering the world in search of fulfilment, he had finally been recognised and, at age 60, was "dancing better than I ever have in my life."
Paradoxically for an artist whose life has been an endless -- and largely fruitless -- struggle for recognition in his own country, Deboo is ambivalent about the Padma Shri that came his way 12 years after the Sangeet Natak Akademi award. "Such awards have been devalued a bit in recent times," Deboo says, "because of the politicking, the lobbying, that goes on. Yet, it is still your country, recognising you for your contributions -- and, in that sense, such awards do make a difference."
He is especially pleased it has come his way unsought. "Friends have pressured me to lobby for it for the last six years, but that is something I could not bring myself to do. I used to get upset when dancers far junior to me got it. The point is, I have never looked at myself as a modern dancer -- I am just a dancer, an Indian dancer, and in that sense, it was upsetting to see others win an award you knew inside of you that you deserved just as much. But I have never lobbied for recognition in my life, and refused to lobby for awards now. I was told Rashtrapati Bhavan had my bio, but I don't even know who sent it to them."
Also see: An audio-visual presentation of Astad Deboo's art