Decades ago, Italian-born Dr. Ileana Citaristi yearned for unrestrained expression and traveled to India in search of self-discovery. In the years that followed, she metamorphosed from a free-spirited hippie to a classical dancer of international repute. After having trained in Odissi under the legendary Guru Sri Kelucharan Mohapatra, Dr. Ileana Citaristi has since made Odisha her home. She has established herself both nationally and internationally as a performer, scholar, choreographer and organiser. Dr. Citaristi founded her Bhubaneswar-based dance institute, Art Vision, in 1996. She has earned many awards and accolades for her work, including the prestigious “Padmashree” award by the Government of India in 2006. Dr. Citaristi’s most recent book, an autobiography aptly titled My Journey, A Tale of Two Births, published in 2015, candidly tells her story of transformation. We are happy to have had a chance to sit with Dr. Citaristi as she shared her life and experiences with us.
GR: Prior to your dance journey, you had made several visits to India. What was it about this country that appealed to you so much at that time?
IC: In the seventies the trip to India was done to challenge myself, to have the experience of being on the road, away from a protected environment and just be ready for what may happen. In the first visit, in 1974, the only known target was to reach India, to experience life on a daily basis without any pre planned arrangements – along the lines of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which inspired many others in my generation.
GR: In your book you mentioned having grown up in a rather traditional household:
IC: Very traditional but after certain point, around the age of 16, I started to rebel. And when I look back at the years following that time, it was a process of continuous growth: the feminist movement, working in the theater, the student movement. And during that time, the discovery of Eastern philosophy, the I-Ching and the Chinese philosophy of Yin Yang – all of these ideas gave me a different perspective on the interpretation of life: Everything which is happening in this moment is equally meaningful and important. It was not about trying to achieve this or that which was very much part of my parents’ generation mentality, as the financial and economic situation of the time they grew up, after the 2nd World war, demanded that. Our generation was rebelling against western philosophy and the orthodox world view that was imposed on us.
GR: How and why did you start learning Indian classical dance?
IC: I was very active in theater. I was involved with a group from Bergamo. They were doing very unusual things, more anti-establishment work. During that time there was also a movement starting from Poland, founded by Jerzy Grotowsky, which was more physical and which used masks, stilts, and brought the theater out of the halls and into the streets. Once the theater group I was involved in moved to Milano, I decided to move to Venice, as I wanted to include Eastern Philosophy in my studies, which was not offered in Milano. There I became more and more exposed to a more physical theater. While studying I started my own theater group, which was dependent on improvising a lot. We did not have a grammar of the body. Rather, we started from an improvisation and then analyzed what we did – opposite of what we do in Indian classical dance! During that period I witnessed a Kathakali performance for the first time. When I saw this performance I realized I had found the grammar of the body that I had been looking for. In 1978 I came to Kerala to attend a three-month workshop. It was super-intensive, from early morning to late at night, and at the end we gave a performance.
GR: In your book, you mention having experienced something very intense during your first stage performance in Kathakali:
IC: I was a student of psychoanalysis earlier and habituated to deal with a lot of mental conflicts, like ‘How much to appear in front of others, how much to be myself, how much to be liked by others, how much to be unique.’ And this was a constant dilemma. Here in India, people were not experiencing that same inner turbulence; there was a general acceptance of what was given. Things were more centered and everyone had their own place. Moreover, people just followed the guide, the Guru, who would tell them exactly what to do. After having rejected so much, it was a totally new state of mind, a new level of peace.
During the performance, you acquire a certain personality that the audience perceives; they associate you with the character and you don’t exist anymore. But at the same time you are unique because you are the one doing that. Onstage, that dichotomy did not exist anymore. I was personifying something in front of others but I was still myself and I did not have to change.
GR: Can you describe your initial experience in Odisha?
IC: The three months that I was in Kerala was a very strong emotional experience, which made me ask ‘what else could I do,’ I knew I could not return to Italy as though nothing had happened. The Kathakali Guru, Krishna Namboodiri, told me about Odissi and gave me the details of Sanjukta Panigrahi whom he had met earlier. I did not know about Odissi, nor did I know about this woman. I came to her, a wild hippie! But she could feel that I was sincere and very hardworking. She was quite cool about a lot of things and did not try to change me. She did not have a lot of patience and many times I would come home and cry. But I was very inspired when I saw her work and practice. Before I left to return to Italy, another student recommended Sanju Nanni’s Guru to me and gave me a piece of paper with his address on it.
Upon returning to India in June 1979, I had planned to return to Kerala for six months, but then plans changed, as the Kathakali group had planned to tour Europe. So I went to Guruji’s house instead, with the paper that had his address, and I started learning dance from him. That changed my life, everything else was forgotten. Six months became six years without ever going back to Italy, and I am still here!
GR: In your book, you mention the inclination leaving for India a rebellion against a system imposed on you – did you not feel the same being in Odisha where it is considered a more conservative state?
IC: This is the paradox: maybe by then my rebellion had exhausted. I was on a search for 10 years. This search went through so many phases. Here I found something that satisfied me – and it was something that I found, not something that was imposed on me. For me, it was the end of the search and the beginning of the learning.
GR: You had never planned to become a dancer. What changed your mind?
IC: It was really Odisha –The entire cultural life was reflected in the dance I was learning. And outside the classroom, the learning continued. I realized I needed to go much deeper into what I was learning. Guruji was giving me the key – dance was the stating point – but through this art I was slowly expanding and trying to understand dance through the things that happened around me – the way people talk, think, their beliefs, dress, etc. all of these observations were part of the learning process, but without realizing it, I was taking it all in – I was enchanted by everything I was seeing around me. It was entering a new life and new culture and absorbing everything I could. While there were certain things that I could not access – I could not go in the kitchen or puja room – I could not touch certain things. And while sometimes it hurt, most of the time I was able to put it into an analytical perspective and understand that it was part of the culture rather than a personal thing. There was also simplicity in Cuttack during those days, warmth and informality there, which was a big support.
GR: Did you ever feel conflicted while you were in Odisha to express your individuality against the conservative system?
IC: No – because all of these things I had done before. So had I not completed that phase of my life before coming here then I would not have had the same experience. I was ready to start from zero. I have to give credit to the people here: they were so simple, and very helpful; opening their homes and hearts to me. Learning Odia for me also helped open the door. Going to a society and system where there is a guide, and there is a form of expression that satisfies you, surrounded by people who are very nice and supportive. That is what I found here and it came at a point in my life – like the tabula rasa- I was starting again. One important phase had ended and a new one began.
GR: Being in such close proximity with such a great artist [Guru Sri Kelucharan Mohapatra], what was the most memorable experience you had with him?
IC: Guruji kept on creating in front of us, without consciously teaching us how to create. There was never a class in choreography nor did he tell us to create anything. It was the continuous process of teaching and correcting, and composing in front of us, and we learned from that. Sharmila, Sutapa, Jhelam, Aloka, we were all from that batch. That was when the workshops were also happening, so people sooner or later started to choreograph.
GR: What do you think it was about Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra’s training that enabled his disciples to have such unique interpretations of Odissi?
IC: None of us are carbon copies of our Guru – which can sometimes happen if the Guru overpowers the student and kills their personality. Guruji gave us the tools and understanding. Everything was precise, but everything was proportionate to our own body. We were never copying him that was why our personality continued to exist. When I attempted my first choreography on “Maya” it was very abstract and philosophical, unlike Guruji’s choreography, which came from the Rasleela tradition. I used certain movements like rolling on the floor to illustrate the initial stage of creation in nature. He was not taken aback that I used these movements, which was not normally done in Odissi. Being a creative person, he could understand the movement in the context of the entire piece rather than taking it out and saying that it is not Odissi.
GR: What is your take on the continued debates regarding what defines or does not define Odissi?
IC: I can tell you one thing: If someone is not a choreographer, he will not understand the process, so he will see it in isolation rather than trying to understand why a particular movement has been used. When you start creating, you don’t have those barriers anymore. I once asked Guruji how I would know once I start choreographing if I am staying within the tradition. He said “You will have your own sensibility that will tell you if something is working or not,” And that was one of the most important lessons I learned from him, which gave me confidence. I never had to go through the dilemma of whether something was Odissi or not. It is not about whether the movement is Odissi or not, but rather how it aligns with the overall aesthetic.
GR: Do you think by taking Odissi out of its regional context you lose that essence of the dance form by making adaptations according to the audience’s sensibilities?
IC: When I go for workshops – I continue to teach what I have learned. I don’t become mortified when I see new experiments in the field. After all, if something is compulsory remaining in the past and not reflecting what is around, it becomes a museum piece. And dance is dynamic. However that said, when I perform outside India, the audience wants to see something more traditional. When I dance solo, bringing the Jagannath onstage is very relevant. It helps in giving the idea of the context and the ambiance to the audience.
GR: Do you ever feel the need to make Odissi more ‘relevant’ to audiences?
IC: When I perform this dance form in Europe, I explain a lot. People can admire costume and movements, but for me it has to be more than that, it is a very important part of my mission, to try to share as much of what I got from this land and culture of Odisha as possible. When I perform in Italy, I can speak the language and I can choose the best way to communicate this art form to others. So to communicate, to be able to bring the audience inside, is very important.
GR: And it is very interesting how you approach this as a means of bringing the audience into your experience rather than trying to adapt to their tastes:
IC: That was always a part of my experience. I started to enjoy that mission when I felt I needed to share. I was finding people’s emotional reactions very intense, especially for certain items like ‘Ramayana.’ I felt I was fulfilling a role of getting two cultures together. When I started learning I never asked myself where I was going with it or whether I would be successful, I just focused on getting into the form as deeply as possible. The purpose came on its own.
GR: You are a Padmashree Awardee; you have toured the world, published several books, and have carved a niche for yourself in the dance field. What is left for you to do now?
IC: No. I have not achieved that much. There are always new targets: When you finish a creation, you look forward to the next one, so there are always new challenges ahead. One keeps looking for new ideas to continue to evolve creatively.