‘All I seek is an apology’

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Every pious pilgrim in India wishes to pay a visit to Char Dham and Puri, better known as the Jagannath Dham or Srikshetra in Orissa, which is one of the four sacred sites where millions flock every year. Perhaps finding a spiritual connect with this loving and giving nation, Italian-born Odissi and Chhau dancer Ileana Citaristi chose not to return to her birthplace ever.
Landing in the holy eastern state of Orissa way back in 1979, the renowned Padma Shri awardee made Bhubaneswar her permanent address. Also conferred with the 43rd National Film Awards for Best Choreography in an Aparna Sen directed Bengali movie
Yugant in 1995, the Odissi-Chhau exponent could carve a niche for herself as a dancer to reckon with.
Well-known for her fusionistic musical productions in Odissi and Chhau, Citaristi seamlessy amalgamates the best of both East-West worlds. Besides Sen, the ace choreographer boasts of a remarkable repertoire of films, wherein she coordinated with late eminent painter M.F. Husain on his arthouse movie Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities (2004) and multi-time National Award winning filmmaker Goutam Ghose in his ambitious sequel to Ray’s classic Aranyer Dinratri - Abar Aranye (2003).
Also an author in her own right, Citaristi has penned two books till date. Her debut book The Making of a Guru: Kelucharan Mohapatra, his Life and Times was published in 2001 and the second title, Traditional Martial Practices in Orissa followed over a decade later in 2012.
Till this point, when everything sounds like a sunny fairytale, then a recent untoward incident plays a sore point in the entire story. According to media reports in circulation, the danseuse was allegedly manhandled by a couple of priests, while offering prayers on Lord Jagannath’s chariot. Soon after, she lodged an FIR with the local police station and the matter is now under investigation.
The shameful incident took place in Puri at the Rath Yatra Festival (during the rituals of Bahuda Jatra, the event for the returning journey of the three chariots of Lord Jagannath, Subhadra Devi and Lord Balabhadra) on July 21. Citaristi speaks candidly about the episode with this correspondent.

Have you been given any assurance by the police authorities that the offending culprits would soon be brought to book?

See, I am not so keen on the assaulter getting arrested, who belongs to the Daitapati Nijog Sevayats (one of the 36 types of servants of Lord Jagannath, precisely an association of Puri temple priests). I would rather want him to first admit his crime and seek an apology from me for his censurable misconduct. The law can then take its own course and the police may punish him for his wrongdoing according to their preset rules and regulations.

Is the offending servitor still on the run?

It seems he is still absconding and is afraid to come out in the open because of legal issues. However, his immediate family has promised me that he will soon plead guilty for his misdemeanour.

Was this the first time that you were aboard the Nandigosha (chariot of Lord Jagannath) to pay your obeisance to the deity?

Oh yes! And that’s why such unpalatable turn of events had left me completely shaken and shocked to the core.

The latest piece of news doing the rounds is that from now onwards no foreign devotee will be allowed to climb up the chariot. What’s your take on this decision?

As far as I know, no such resolution has been passed as yet. The head of the Daitapati Nijog has intimated me that a final settlement can be made only after a unanimous consensus is reached on this matter amongst the Jagannath Temple authority, the Puri king, the Shankaracharya and the representatives of the sevayats. They are also contemplating about controlling the excessive crowd of visitors, which stream in at the chariot wheels to catch a glimpse of the idol. Plus, escorting the foreign devotees and tourists is another imperative possibility on their radar.
But your association with India and its rich culture dates back to the end of 1970s. Though the current circumstances have embittered your mind, but will it on any count sour your equations with the country you’ve embraced and made your home for so many years?

Of course not. Nothing has or will ever change in the future course because of this one stray incident. My feelings towards India, the Oriya culture and its people will always remain as immaculate as it was before. I share a very close bond with this place and the local populace.

How did you land up in India? What prodded you to live in Orissa once and for all?

It was through Kathakali, the classical dance form of Kerala, that I got a wide exposure to the vast wealth of a diverse Indian dance vocabulary. But it lasted for only three months as an introductory phase under the aegis of my respected guru Sri Krishnan Namboodari. And my real training began in Odissi (classical temple dance of Orissa) and Mayurbhanj Chhau (famous mask dance of tribals from the Mayurbhanj district of Orissa. It is a high-energy induced and high-spirited genre of dance).
Actually, the meeting with my illustrious gurus Sri Kelucharan Mohapatra (Odissi) and Sri Hari Nayak (Chhau) proved to be quite a turning point in my life as well as my career. The depth of their philosophy behind the gamut of Indian dance vocabulary and the warm nature and hospitality of the people of Orissa had in a way cast a hypnotic spell on me. And the rest as they say, is history. I quickly shifted my base to this spiritual land and forged an inseparable union with its soil. But I think beyond all this, it was Lord Jagannath’s majestic will that drove me to this territory to pursue my craft and further bolster it to perfection with an element of finesse.

It is said that dance is also a form of education in life. So other than dance, what else have you learnt from your three very revered, iconic gurus, who you heartily value till date?

The greatest lesson that I learnt by practising different art forms of performance under the tutelage of my masters (Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, Guru Hari Nayak and Guru Krishnan Namboodari) is to invariably remain humble and grateful to God who had gifted us with this most precious life on this beautiful planet. They had imposed their steadfast faith in the divine powers and made their sphere of work their medium of worship. I try my heart and soul to carry forth their art and legacy in whatever minuscule way I can. You know, the seed of purity and aesthetics ingrained in every disciple of these stalwarts is bound to bear fruits anywhere on earth.

Tell us something about your 17-year-old institution of Art Vision Academi, which you had floated in 1996.

It is a platform to nourish and polish a bevy of untapped, raw talent. Under the umbrella of Art Vision, I can groom students and instill in them what my Guruji aka Kelucharan Babu had taught me. The school’s curriculum is carefully designed to impart ideas on various artistic arenas such as theatre, music, dance and painting. Besides, I organise festivals like Sangam, where I annually get to present my self-created array of new choreographies. Plus, we also offer a tribute in remembrance of our Guruji on the eve of his death anniversary, which is on April 7.

Any upcoming stage productions in the pipeline?

For this 2013’s edition of popular Sangam Festival, which will be held in September at Bhubaneswar, a new dance-troupe will take centrestage to render a choreographed recital. Called Gaya-Mother Earth, the visual spectacle will incorporate both Odissi and Chhau dance genres in the act.

Don’t you miss theatre where you had spent five years of your artistic career as an actress in both traditional and experimental formats in Italy?

I don’t really miss the plays any more because dance is my primary focus at the moment. But having said that, I have been simultaneously operating with distinguished theatre groups like NSD, Rangayana, et al, delivering workshops on Chhau dance in the process.

Any new book on the anvil?

My untitled autobiography is in the final stage of shaping up into a full-fledged tome and I hope to publish it by this year-end. After that, I intend to write a book on Indian dance in my mothertongue (Italian), since nothing is available on that subject back home.

Thoughts on your future plans.

Well, that’s simple. I would like to stay in a dancer’s shell forever. You’ll see me continuing to practice dance, teach dance and choreograph many more novel pieces with innovative angles to boot. I’d like to grow and evolve, and not stagnate in the middle. Fact is, a dancer
always lives on the trot (smiles!).

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