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Ileana Citaristi: The dancer who tamed a hippie

Ileana Citaristi reveals how an Italian rebel became one of India’s foremost classical dancers in her autobiography, A Tale of Two Births

Written by Dipanita Nath |
Updated: April 29, 2015 12:15:19 pm
talk, delhi talk, dancer, Ileana Citaristi, Italian, autobiography, A tale of Two Births, book, dance book, Odissi, Mayurbhanj Chhau Ileana Citaristi and her book cover.

An exponent of Odissi and Mayurbhanj Chhau, Ileana Citaristi recently visited Goa for a performance, and an image stirred her memory. “I saw myself as a young person running almost nude amid the sand, the sea and the sky to discover nature some 40 years ago on Anjuna beach. I imagine it was me, because it was my previous life,” she says. Citaristi is the other famous Italian woman, who made India her home long ago.

On June 1, 1979, she arrived here with Odissi guru Kelucharan Mohapatra’s name scrawled on a bit of paper. That day bisected her life into before- and after- phases. How a wild-haired hippie smelling of flower power moulded herself to fit the rigorous mores of classical training makes up her autobiography My Journey: A Tale of Two Births (Manohar Publishers; Rs 950). It will be launched by Kapila Vatsyayan at India International Centre, Delhi, today, in an event organised by Kri Foundation. An interview with the Padma Shri and National Award-winning dancer.

Time Travel

I wrote the book while travelling. We dancers travel a lot and I sleep badly on trains. I took my laptop and, on every journey, I wrote a new portion. Ever since I came to India, it has been only dance and all my love stories and romances belong to my Italian past. All my male loves are described in the first part. In the second part, I didn’t allow love to happen because I wouldn’t move from my dance so I didn’t give it space. Sometimes, it is difficult for me to realise that I am the same person. The two births in the title actually mean a big, big jump.

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The Guru and I

I first met guru Kelucharan Mohapatra dressed in a sleeveless ganji and with my hair all wild. Guruji was bold enough to accept me. He was a tough teacher and I was greedy for knowledge. There were things I couldn’t do in his house, like go in the puja room or the kitchen. I justified all this with my analytical mind and previous anthropological studies. I changed slowly. One day, I gathered my hair — it was a lot of hair, wild and curly — and guruji said, ‘Oh, finally I can see your face”.

Rebel without a Pause

My family was very Italian, orthodox and Catholic. My father was a Member of Parliament for the Conservative Party. I was docile till 15. The first rebellion was against the church. Then, against the family. My first boyfriend was a wild rebel and he liberated me. When I was 17-18, I joined a theatre group. Parallel to that, I was studying Eastern Philosophy, which brought me close to Japanese Taoism, Buddhist philosophy and Indian mythology. So, one way was a search of physical expression through theatre while the other way was the life of philosophy through eastern thoughts. The two things came together when I came to India.

Stage Presence

I had to crack many obstacles in the performance line and that also, I have written about. In Orissa, I was not accepted much in group performances because of my height. I could have done male roles but that didn’t happen, which was a blessing in disguise because I started on solo programmes much before my contemporaries. My first solo was in April 1981, two years after I began learning. It was a full performance, with guruji dressing me up because I didn’t know what to do, and playing the pakhavaj for me.

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