In her early 20s and armed with a doctorate in philosophy, Ileana Citaristi came from Bergamo in Italy to Odisha in 1979 to learn Odissi dance from Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. Since then she has made Odisha her home. Along with Odissi, Citaristi also learnt Mayurbhanj Chau dance from Guru Hari Nayak.
Known for innovative blending of both dance forms in her choreography, she has won a National Film Award for Best Choreography for the Bengali film Yugant (1995).
In 2006, she was awarded the Padma Shri — India's fourth highest civilian award — for her contribution to Odissi.
Citaristi has also authored two books — Making of a Guru: Kelucharan Mohapatra, his Life and Times and The Tradition of Martial Art Practices in Odisha. She has inspired Odissi enthusiasts across the world to come to the state to learn the dance form.
Recently, Citaristi was in news after she alleged two servitors beat up and pushed her down the chariot of Lord Jagannath when she went to pay her obeisance, kicking off a controversy. HT met her at her residence in Bhubaneswar, where she runs Art Vision Academi, imparting training in Odissi and Chau to students.
Do you visit Puri often?
Yes, but this is the first time that I went up the chariot to pray to Lord Jagannath.
Why did you think of going up the chariot?
It is like asking me why I came to Odisha (laughs). Why I went there on Sunday morning (July 21) and why that fellow (servitor who allegedly hit her head and pushed her down the chariot) was there.
I have always prayed to the Lord Jagannath from a distance. It is a fact that we cannot enter the temple to pray to him. When you are forbidden to do something, it becomes more attractive to you and you develop a determination to do it. And when that 'something' is outside in the chariot, you desire to go there. When Lord Jagannath comes out of His abode, He is available for his devotee, irrespective of race, caste or religion. There is no restriction.
But you were pushed out of the chariot. Has the incident changed your perception?
In fact, it has brought me closer to Him. Maybe Lord Jagannath pulled me there just to provoke the incident. Maybe something good comes out of it eventually. I am not here to be a crusader or reformer. My chosen vocation is dance. But without my wanting it, when the incident has been blown out of proportion, I cannot just be indifferent to the situation anymore.
Did you want the servitor who misbehaved with you to be punished?
Now the matter is over as I have withdrawn the case against the servitor after he came to me and apologised for his behaviour. See, my wish was not that he be arrested by police and put behind bars. If some of my disciples do something wrong, I do not go to the police, I try to discipline them.
But I wanted the servitor who misbehaved with me to be identified and punished by their own system of servitors. I wanted him to realise his mistake and rectify it so that such incidents do not occur again.
Many people who called me after the incident told me that they had undergone similar kind of experience while visiting the temple in Puri and decided not to go there again. I am sure that there are some excellent people among the temple priest community. So why should the whole community of servitors carry the burden of blame for the action of a few.
The temple authorities should ensure that security is provided to devotees. There should be proper regulations to manage the crowd in the temple.
Have you got any positive response from the Puri temple administration or servitors' community?
Jagannath Temple chief administrator Arabind Padhee had called me to assure that action would be taken. Ram Krishna Dasmohapatra, chief 'daitapati' (head of the priest community) came to meet me and I was honoured that he came to meet me. He was very much concerned about the whole thing. I know it is not easy to change the system, but Dasmohapatra has assured that they would hold a meeting and steps would be taken to identify the person.
What does Lord Jagannath means to you?
He is everywhere and in everything. My form of religion and relationship with Him is because of the environment I am in. I am not very ritualistic and a regular temple goer. But I like to be part of the environment and what is happening around me.
My medium of expression is dance. For me dance is my sadhana, my prayer and my devotion. Moreover, I learnt dance from Guru Kelu Charan Mohapatra who was an ardent Jagannath devotee. So whatever happened around me was related to Lord Jagannath.
Are you a religious person?
All religions are basically same. If I relate to my own experience, when in the beginning I was in Italy, my religion there seemed to me very oppressive in the sense that going to church regularly and other such rituals were imposed on me.
When I came here to learn dance, I did not come to embrace another religion. But in the meantime, I developed my religiousness through my dance. This is my way to approach God. Odissi and Jaganath culture are interwoven. But a time comes when you draw your energy from a force that shapes your future and for me that is Lord Jagannath.
However, that does not mean that I have embraced Hinduism as a religion. I have never gone to a church in the last 40 years, either.