Odissi’s Italian connection
By Jane Borges
Dressed in the customary attire and ornaments, India’s most renowned foreign exponent of Odissi and Chhau dancing, Ileana Citaristi, echoes an aura of grace and sophistication.Italian by birth, Ileana’s love for the lyrical dance form pulled her to a new homeland years ago. Today, the winner of the Padma Shri and national award, has not only mastered the Indian classical art but is also one of the greatest contributors to the revival of Odissi in India.
Minutes before her performance at the cultural programme “Urja” I get the opportunity to interact with the artist who seems to be the epitome of diversity and multiculturalism. She speaks with her dance troupe flawless Oriya and my curiosity to know how an Italian bonded with Oriya culture increases.
After completing her doctorate in philosophy and working in traditional and experimental theatre in her home country Italy, Ileana came to Orissa in 1979, with the inquisitiveness to learn the art of Indian classical dance.
She says, “The sole purpose of coming to India was to learn the grammar of classical dancing so that I could utilise it for my theatre performances back in Europe. But once I came here, I fell in love with Odissi and saw no reason to go back. My decision to stay in Orissa was instantaneous. I had found the land where I could best express myself.”
In the years to follow, Ileana trained intensively in Odissi under the renowned guru late Kelucharan Mohapatra, and also trained in Mayurbhanj Chhau under Guru Hari Nayak.
“Chhau is a rich style that adapts to innovations. Learning Chhau along with Odissi has enhanced my dancing and choreography immensely. Odissi is softer; it makes the use of the hands and feet while Chhau involves full body movements.”
A committed researcher and choreographer, Ileana bagged the prestigious National Award for choreography in 1996, for Aparna Sen’s Yugantar.
The movie, which was based on an Odissi dancer, gave Ileana her first break in film choreography. After this she also choreographed for MF Hussain’s Meenaxi in 2002.
Ileana, who is presently based in Bhubaneshwar, still prefers teaching. “I am very passionate about teaching; I started the Art Vision Dance Academy in 1996, because I wanted to teach what I had learnt from my Guru late Kelucharan Mohapatra.”
“Before this I used to only organise small workshops or choreography. The institute was my dream; I wanted to have a formidable learning ground to teach Odissi and Chhau. Today, the art vision organises workshops and cultural performances regularly,” she says.
Ileana has also played a vital role in promoting lesser known art forms such as Gotipua dance, Das Katia, Raas Leela, Radha Prema Leela and Ram leela folk theatre.
Speaking about her students, she adds, “There are a lot of dedicated students today who have a professional attitude to dance, they are more eager to learn and are also open to experimenting.”
Ileana has traveled widely and has performed at major dance festivals in India, Europe, Japan, USA, Canada, Australia, Korea, Israel and Malaysia.
In 2006, Ileana Citaristi was awarded the Padma Shri for her contribution to Odissi. But not one to rest on her laurels, her romance with Indian classical dance clearly sees no end.