Padma Shri-winning Italian, Ileana Citaristi oh her ‘rebirth’ through dance in India

  • Poorva Joshi, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Nov 26, 2015 17:24 IST
A traditional Odissi stance from Ileana Citaristi’s performance titled Abhinaya

It is 10 in the morning when we speak to Ileana Citaristi over the phone. The Italy-born dancer, who lives in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, says she’s the only foreigner in her neighbourhood, but she’s never felt more at home. “People here are proud of my achievement. Everybody is like family and I, too, despite being an outsider, am a part of the ecosystem,” she says, with a hint of gratitude mixed with joy.

Citaristi was the first dancer of foreign descent to receive a Padma Shri in 2006. “I came to India seeking knowledge. I stayed back as a disciple. To be honoured in such a way by this great country has been the highlight of my life here,” she says.

The academic intervention

Since the ’70s, Citaristi was involved in experimental theatre workshops that focussed on physical expression of thought. It was while attending these workshops that she met Kathakali exponent Krishna Namboodiri during a performance. In his discourse, Namboodiri explained the meaning behind each movement in the dance form, and Citaristi found herself drawn to its intricacies. “I remember thinking to myself that I have found my calling,” she says.

However, dance was not the first association Citaristi had with India. Academically, she was already looking into eastern philosophies of life and spirituality. “I was fascinated by how all the eastern civilisations had a common cultural denominator. Most of these philosophies are related to the performing arts of the corresponding nations,” she adds. Subsequently, she studied Taoism, Buddhism and ancient Japanese, Chinese and Indian texts.

In 1979, Citaristi studied under Odissi exponent Kelucharan Mohapatra. Her plan was to study for a year and go back to Italy and implement her newfound knowledge in her theatre career. “That one year transformed into a lifetime before I knew it,” she says.

Citaristi during a Chhau performance titled Shiva Tandav

For Citaristi, Odissi came as a respite from the feminist revolution that was brewing in Italy during the ’70s. “We were rejecting so many archaic norms and challenging patriarchal diktats, that somewhere, I believe, we rejected femininity altogether. But through Odissi, I could get in touch with my feminine side,” she says.

Alongside, Citaristi also studied the martial dance form of Chhau under dancer Shri Hari Nayak to explore her masculinity. “Chhau complemented my Odissi training by providing me with more stamina and balance. In turn, Odissi, added elegance and grace to my Chhau performances,” she says.

The experimental approach

She says she is a fan of poetry, history and abstract thought. “It is challenging to translate abstract concepts into dance. I find that inspiring,” Citaristi says. And some of Citaristi’s celebrated recitals have been contemporary renditions of Odissi. For instance, Still I Rise (2005) was based on American author and poet, Maya Angelou’s eponymous poem, that emphasises on hopeful determination; Mahanadi: And the River Flows (2008), that depicted the history and cultural geography of Orissa and Karuna (2010) — based on the life of Mother Teresa.

Beyond the live performances, Citaristi has also worked as a choreographer in films. Her first film was Aparna Sen’s 1995 Bengali film, Yugant. “The experience taught me how the approach to dance changes when the medium is different. I had to learn how to choreograph a certain piece for the camera, as it was going to be filmed from different angles,” she says. Though disappointed by the final cuts made to the film — she thought the essence of her choreography was lost post-production — Citaristi was “shocked to receive a National Award for her work”. Consequently, she went on to work with MF Husain on his film Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities, in 2004.

One mind, two cultures

By her own admission, Citaristi is the personification of the coexistence of two distinct cultures. “I am a great subject for a social experiment on cultural confluences,” she laughs.

Fittingly, she titled her autobiography My Journey, A Tale of Two Births, as an ode to her re-birth in India. “The first birth is my actual birth in Italy. The second one is my rebirth, through dance and of having grown up in India, learning everything about life, from scratch,” she says.

Fact file

What: Ileana Citaristi will discuss her life’s journey and her autobiography, My Journey, A Tale of Two Births, on Friday, November 27, 5.30pm onward.

Where: Somaiya Centre for Lifelong Learning, Fort.

Call: 6170 2270

Entry: Free

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