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Dr. Ileana Citaristi: My karma is to break new ground
- Lalitha Venkat
e-mail: lalvenkat@yahoo.com

September 17, 2012

Italian by birth, Dr. Ileana Citaristi holds a Doctorate in Philosophy with a thesis on 'Psychoanalysis and eastern mythology.' She came to Indian dance after years of experience in the traditional as well as experimental theatre in Europe. An exponent of Odissi and Mayurbhanj Chhau, Ileana has made Odisha her home since 1979.  She learnt Mayurbhanj Chhau under the guidance of Guru Hari Nayak, obtaining the title of ‘Acharya’ from the Sangeet Mahavidyalya of Bhubaneswar in Orissa. A senior disciple of Odissi Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, she founded Art Vision in 1996 with a group of artistes belonging to different disciplines such as dance, music, painting and literature to share creative ideas. One such is Kalinga Mahotsav, a national festival for martial arts organized with Odisha Tourism Department at Dhauli Stupa from 2003.

The Art Vision Academy conducts classes in Odissi and Chhau. The performing unit has performed in many prestigious conferences and festivals in India and overseas. Ileana Citaristi’s contributions, besides the many performances and lec-dems include articles on Oriya culture published in Indian and foreign magazines, research work for film documentaries on Odissi and Chhau dances and practical dance workshops for dancers and theatre workers which she regularly conducts on invitation from different institutions in India and abroad.

Ileana is the recipient of many awards and recognition including National Award for Best Choreography for her dance direction in the Bengali film ‘Yugant’ directed by Aparna Sen (1996) and the Padma Shri (2006) for her contribution to Odissi dance. Her book ‘Making of a Guru’ on her Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra has been well received. Ileana not only speaks Odiya fluently but she reads the script too, so well has she integrated herself into Odiya society. A chief guest commented at the latest Sangam festival on Sept 12, 2012 that the two most well-known Italians in India are Sonia Gandhi and Ileana Citaristi!

This interview is the result of a chat with her during my visit to her charming house overlooking the Bindusagar in Bhubaneswar. 

Could you tell us about the Sangam Festival?
The Sangam Festival was started eight years ago. It presents only group choreography or duets, but no solos. I like to do something new for this fest. It is always a challenge to come up with something new every year. My preference is to do abstract things like ‘Maya Darpan’ (concept of Maya), the tantric concept of ‘Saraha’ that needed a suggestive approach. My traditional work ‘Mahanadi’ was a gift that I wanted to give back to Orissa for being here for so long. 

What has inspired your collaborations and experimental work?
Osho’s interpretation for the aphorism of ‘Saraha’ (2007) was my inspiration. The production was inspired by the tale of Saraha, the founder of the Tantric discipline in the Tibetan region. Pakistani sitarist Anwar Khurshid translated the English text into Urdu, and sent me the music composition from Pakistan through the Internet in segments. When we both performed at a festival, he visited me in Orissa and corrected the pronunciation of our Odiya singer. It is amazing that a work evolved between Pakistan and India based artistes through the internet!

In 2008, I presented ‘Mahanadi’ about people and places along the course of this mighty river that flows through Odisha. For the first time, poet Devdas Chhotray wrote lyrics for a dance production. It was so beautifully poetic. In 2009, I did a traditional ‘Parthasarathi’ from Bhagavad Gita. The theme had been done earlier by Kumkum Mohanty as Arjuna and Sanjukta  Panigrahi as Krishna, but my presentation was different. 

After 2 years of traditional work, I came up with an abstract work ‘Karuna’ on Mother Theresa in 2010. I had to create a work based on my admiration for her. I also had to be innovative regarding props and costumes for such a theme.

In 2011, in ‘Mano Bhanja’ I went back to the traditional story that Guruji used to tell us. He used to play the Krishna role in the raasleela that was more like dance theatre. Krishna comes in various disguises like a flower seller and yogi, to win Radha back till she finally succumbs to his charms. I found that Babaji Vaishnava Charan Das had the original script and though the subject had been made into a film, it had never been adapted into Odiya dance. The music composer Laxmikant Palit used some of the raasleela tunes to retain the original flavor.

This year I have come back to abstract theme with ‘Kaala - Time bound’ inspired by an installation art conceived by Kapila Vatsyayan for IGNCA that I saw about ten years ago. All these abstract works require input of ideas from me, so it is a real challenge to put together an abstract production. I chose the sections for text and Devdas Chhotray has transformed them into simple Odiya lyrics and not having too much text enhances the music as well as suits the dance so well.

I have also enjoyed performing Odissi to Ravel’s ‘Bolero.’ I was originally a solo artiste, then I started to perform duets with Saswat Joshi.

You have done some contemporary work too.
I love contemporary work. I performed in 1985 in the East West Encounter and in 1999 at The Other Festival, I presented ‘Echo and Narcissus.’ There was no other avenue to present contemporary work those days. After working so hard on a production, if there is no platform to present it, what’s the use? After such a long gap, it is heartening to see many new festivals for contemporary choreography as well as very good dancers in that genre.

You are the brain behind Kalinga Mahotsav.
I conceived the Kalinga Mahotsav to help martial artistes showcase their skills. The festival has been going on all these years well as a stand alone festival. Since the troupes and art forms are limited in number, I have toyed with the idea of involving choreographers work with the martial artistes to evolve a modern dance production based on their martial art skills, so the evening could showcase a performance of this new work as well as a traditional martial art performance. Now the culture department has combined the Dhauli Mahotsav with Kalinga Mahotsav and made it the Kalinga-Dhauli Mahohtsav. It is to be for 5 days and the plan is to feature one performance of martial art and a program of classical dance each evening. I am not for it, but what to do. I think it must be my karma that I should break new ground. When one does not work, I will break another ground!

Can you tell us about your just released book ‘Traditional martial practices in Odisha’?
My main interest in the martial arts of Odisha was to learn how to distinguish that from a skilled exercise with risk, to a form of dance simulating a fight but without risk. I also wanted to find out how much of Paiko was in Chhau dance. So I had to do research on Paiko as no one has written anything about it. I am the first one to. I am really excited about it. I owe it to the Paiko artistes, who have demonstrated for me in hot weather, sandy and dusty environs, sometimes even foregoing their daily wages whenever I have visited them to learn about their work, so obliging and asking for nothing. They helped me so much in my documenting work, always eager to show their skills and how they were surviving. I personally took the photos and videos and completed the field work by 1996 or so. I got a 6 month grant from IGNCA and later a 2 year grant from Ford Foundation. So, I had all the material but could not put it together till now.

For art to survive, I had to organize my findings in a syllabus form. So I approached the then Chief Minister Biju Patnaik with a proposal to open a Paiko academy. A man of prompt action, he immediately agreed. I found a vacant vocational institute near Khurda with many rooms and lot of space outside. The sports department was in charge of payment! The first batch of students was given scholarship and 3 staff members appointed. We would meet at regular intervals to work on the syllabus under headings like ground exercises and so on.  The institute ran for one and a half years but closed with the change in government. I have been trying to revive the project with the present government but nothing is happening.

The real culture and life are in the villages. This book is to highlight their history, survival, and contribution to Odisha. Each village forms one chapter and has details of its background, legends, movement grammar. All the photos are taken by me and illustrations are by Rabindranath Sahoo. When I see the traditional martial arts of Odisha, I sometimes wonder if we should call it dance or sports. That is the big question!

Contact Dr. Ileana Citaristi: ileana5@hotmail.com

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