Farewell, Astad

‘Gone too soon, Astad, but I know whenever we meet in that world beyond, I will watch you dance.’
Swarupa Dutt remembers a remarkable human being and a magnificent performer who left the world poorer when he passed into the ages on Thursday.

My parents came home late at night in their ‘Grotto Blue’ Ambassador. I opened the door though they had the keys and the first thing my mom told me was this ‘daroon‘, fantastic, dance performance by this young man. His name, she said, was unusual: Astad Deboo.

It was the late seventies and my parents had been to the Filmfare Awards which used to be held at the Shanmukhananda Hall at Sion, then the biggest auditorium in Asia with the best acoustics.

Hema Malini, the reigning star of the time, found passing mention — beautiful, but with a remarkably high forehead, as did Shashi Kapoor — again, daroon dekhte, looks fantastic, my mother said.

Astad in his twenties, performed with Kalpana Iyer, the Hindi film industry’s classy siren and danseuse.

My mother, who has watched another legendary and pathbreaking dancer, Uday Shankar (with Russian ballerina Simki) perform in Kolkata in the early fifties, said Astad’s act was the highpoint of her evening.

Around 40 years later, at the Rediff.com office in Mumbai, a man walked in, gave Nikhil Lakshman, the editor-in-chief, a bear hug and hello-ing and stopping briefly at the desks he passed on the way, walked to the desk behind me and said, “Kaise hain aap?

My colleague Firdaus Ashraf, always loud, always garrulous, beamed, “Astaaad!”

I could hardly turn around and dive into a private conversation, but I was consumed with curiosity about this man who smelt divine — a Issey Miyake — I was told, years later, when I asked.

And then quite suddenly, bang! I knew he was the man my mother watched so many years ago, dancing the rhythm divine.

Over the years, Astad has been a regular at the Rediff office. He and Nikhil Lakshman go way back to the late seventies, a friendship that began in a bus. But that, is another story, waiting to be heard.

Over the years, he would always stop by my desk and speak to me in accented Bengali — his roots in Jamshedpur, a Tata company township with more Bengalis than Biharis, drink from my bottle of water, and ask about my wellbeing.

Kaemon? Theek aacho, Swarupa? (pronounced the Bengali way)”

And I, always conscious of speaking to a legend, polite, barely warm, replying in monosyllables.

He would air kiss and hug my colleague Archana Masih, and say, with that Astad-like nasal lilt, “Masiiih, how are you!” and she, her face awash with a love and tenderness telling of a 20-year-old friendship, would sit him down and talk.

Archana messaged me yesterday and said, “I did not expect that he will not make it. But what a life he lived!”

For that life, for that Astad, the dancer and performer, this is a must read.

But for me, this is about the other Astad, my colleague at Rediff.com.

I have never seen him dance.

I have never met him outside of office.

I have hardly ever spoken to him over the phone except for clarifications when I interviewed him for a series on ‘India’s Treasures’ in 2017.

The only place I ever met him was at work and over the years Astad has inextricably become part of our working lives.

He would lower himself on one of the empty seats next to me, cross his legs encased in khaki trousers, ironed to knife-edge perfection, and hold court.

Vignettes from the embassies (who will be transferred where and when) and government offices and corporates he had to visit for funding (“jitna zyaada paisewala, utna kanjoos makkichoos,” he would say), performances done and dusted for royalty and heads of State, and honest-to-goodness gossip.

He loved pastels and bush shirts and kurtas and kurtis and chudidars, as did I on him. His coiffed hair in its corn rows, always on point, unless, of course, he had dropped in on the way to his salon appointment. And always that fresh, lemony, spicy scent wafting in the air.

We would turn our chairs around to face him, lean over the cubicle partitions and listen in and even watch him mimic an ageing classical dancer.

Astad would spring up, position his hands in a hasta mudra and his eyebrows in a ukkshipt, and in those few seconds give me a glimpse of the what I had missed never watching him perform.

You always got barefaced honesty in his observations, gentle in his criticisms, and dismissive of the apparent awe we held him in. He was humble, not self-effacing, candid, not caustic.

A greasy Bombay sandwich from the canteen, washed down with water from my bottle and he would bid farewell.

Where are you travelling to, Astad, I would ask, as he would stop by for a goodbye hug.

“Well, day after, I’m going to Vienna, then on to Prague, Munich, and Venezuela.”

Or some such.

I envied him his travels, but more often than not, simply imagining him perform in Europe’s capitals, would allow me to live vicariously, till he dropped by the next time with more stories. (By 2018, he had visited 75 countries and performed in almost as many).

When he left office, the silence would be palpable, the humdrum of everyday work, overwhelming.

When the lockdown began, the unplanned, megalomaniacal shutdown of a country of 1.3 billion people in four hours, public transport stopped. My mother was a dialysis patient and dialysis cannot stop for a lockdown. We organised transportation and things went without a hitch.

In late March, Astad called me.

Kaemon aacho? I just called to find out how you were doing? How is your mother?”

I told him I was touched he had reached out and called.

“No, No, kaeno? Why? Tumi special amar jonne. You are special to me, you know that.”

No, I didn’t know. But it did feel special and I told him his phone call made coping with the stress of a lockdown that much easier.

When I lost my mother in May, Astad called me. I didn’t take his call because I was devastated.

He then sent me messages and among the many lines he wrote, said, “If you need anything, please do reach out to me.” He asked after my sister, and told me to talk to her.

How did he even remember I had one, I don’t know, nor did I stop to think, as I do now, when I look back at those messages.

I guess that’s just Astad being his kind, warm, loving, generous self.

We exchanged greetings on birthdays, exchanged heart emojis, he checked with me if he had the right date for Bijoya before he sent out his messages to his Bengali friends, he shared pictures and memories of performances and people past, and nudged his way into my thoughts through this difficult year, forcing me to think of normalcy and the promise of better times.

Then, on the 14th of November, he made a video call.

He was propped up against the headboard, lying in bed, dressed in white Parsi Sudreh. After the “kemon aacho?“, he sprung on it on me, “I have cancer. I wanted to tell you myself.”

Astad had extended his elegant hand of friendship years ago, I know, because he told me he considered me a friend, but I always kept him at bay. Maybe the spectre of his awards, his worldwide fame, the fact that he is a living legend, always loomed.

But that day, I crossed my own well-defined line, and used a cuss word telling him, “Bloody, you owe me a performance. You bloody, get well and dance for me. And do it quick. Don’t lie in bed. Geddup quick. Bloody.”

Astad laughed and said he would get better and I would see him dance.

Firdaus, who visited the ailing Astad at his home last month, found him frail. “Darling, if I die, please write an obit on Rediff,” he told Firdaus, half in jest.

Firdaus — who would always jocularly tell Astad, “You are the only Padma Shri who knows my name” — said somberly, “Don’t make me use past tense, stop talking like this.”

Maybe Astad knew he wouldn’t make it past all the chemotherapy sessions, because he said again, write my obit.

Firdaus tells me Astad was in pain and maybe it is kind that his suffering was interminably short.

“I will always respect him for returning his award to Narendra Modi’s Gujarat government in 2007. That was much before Award Wapsi. That was the real Astad,” Firdaus said on Thursday.

Astad had returned the Gaurav Puruskar from the Gujarat state Sangeet Natak Akademi, saying, ‘I am proud to be an Indian and an artiste. But the violence perpetrated upon the people of Gujarat under this Government leaves me with no choice except to disassociate myself from all its actions.’ It was in protest of the post-Godhra Gujarat riots of 2002.

I am not writing this for you, Astad.

This is for me.

When Ma passed on, I unburdened my emotions on to a word file and mailed it to myself. I will never open that file again, but it was cathartic.

It’s much the same with, you, Astad.

As I write this, my eyes well up.

Am I grieving for my mother?

Or for a man, I can hardly claim to know, have barely held a long conversation with and at best share with the world.

Maybe both.

Gone too soon, Astad, but I know whenever we meet in that world beyond, I will watch you dance.

Farewell… my friend.

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