A dancer’s life

In the Capital with a two-day festival, Odissi exponent Ileana Citaristi says if you treat dance like a hobby, it will remain a hobby

July 10, 2016 04:53 pm | Updated 04:53 pm IST

Ileana Citaristi. Photo: K. Ananthan

Ileana Citaristi. Photo: K. Ananthan

Clad in a fine Kantha sari, Ileana Citaristi sits resting her chin on her palm staring into the distance, ready to talk about the dance that has defined her life. A journey that has been tremendous for her since she started walking in pursuit of Odissi and Mayurbhanj Chhau more than three decades ago as a resilient woman in her 20s.

Much has been said about the danseuse’s journey from Italy to India but she remains more rooted to this acquired ancient culture than anyone else. “I did not realise when Odissi became a way of life for I just embraced with all I had. At a point, I realised I was responsible for whatever I learnt from my Gurujis (Kelucharan Mohapatra and Srihari Nayak), and I must pass it on, ensure that what I learnt so methodically from them stayed,” says Ileana. It is then that she started Art Vision Dance Academy with just three students back in 1996 in Bhubaneswar.

Having devoted her life to the two dance forms for several years, Ileana naturally does understand and know the complications in a dancer’s life, especially in a country like India where the ‘marriageable age’ is an obsession we do not get tired of. “Oh! It upset me a great deal in the beginning when I saw my students who grew their potential on a daily basis just turned their backs and walked off to get married. And their pursuit stopped there. But then I have come to accept this fact over the years that, more often than not, the life of a woman is not in her hands, at least not in smaller places like Odisha. It is sad, yes, but I cannot expect the same devotion from everyone,” she reminisces. “Some pick up dance as adults, in which case, it becomes a life choice for them. But in most cases, they are sent at a young age by the parents and withdrawn at an ‘appropriate age’,” says Ileana.

If it is not the pressure to get married, there is pressure to build a career around a more lucrative job than dance. “Sometimes, it is the interference with studies or tuitions and dance is never the priority for them. It does not work like that, if you treat it like a hobby, it will remain a hobby. I always ask my students to give value to the time and energy they invest in it. I try to make them realise that there’s a certain content in their heritage and roots that can only be preserved via dance. No amount of formal education is going to get you that,” she states.

Talking about the sustenance and nourishment of a dancer, Ileana agrees that the better platform does get limited to the financially sound for obvious reasons. “The government has several grants but the paperwork is so tedious that most people do not access them. The good scholarships, on the other hand, are not easy to get. One needs to pay for the musicians, recordings, compositions, travelling, costumes, jewellery and what not. Someone belonging to the lower middle-class really needs to break their ground to prove their worth,” says Ileana. As a student when she was still touring with Kelucharan Mohapatra, Ileana, however, had the good fortune of being guest to a great deal of hospitality. “My lifestyle is very Spartan. I do not need a lot to sustain myself. Even then, my hosts were incredibly kind to me,” she says.

As a westerner who chose Odissi and Chhau over the western classical dance forms, Ileana says that there is not much difference when it comes to expression between the east and west. “One may generalise and say that the ballet is more athletic and technical while Odissi is full of facial expressions and minute bodily movements that work as gestures. But think about how there are characters, costumes and choreographies involved in a dance production, they all count as expressions. Similarly, in Indian dance forms, the physicality is less demanding in terms of athletic jumps but the meticulousness of our footwork requires years to master,” Ileana asserts. About the dichotomy between classical and contemporary, she says that what is contemporary today will become classical tomorrow and the contemporary today needs a classical foundation of what already exists. “They are both not mutually exclusive. One transforms into the other. Your strong classical foundation helps you modify your contemporary. Look at Chandralekha, for instance, she moved from one to another in such a sublime way,” she adds.

As part of Art Vision Academy’s 20th anniversary celebrations, Ileana will showcase a two-day dance festival called Tribhanga – Explorations in Odissi Dance on 13 and 14 July in New Delhi. There will be four choreographies, all of which are centred on themes of spirituality, compassion and self-discovery. Saraha is the story of a Brahmin man in search of self-realisation and is unable to find it in the learned ambience he comes from. Kaala is on time – from the first vibrations of it, then the circular and sacred time of mythologies, the linear time of histories as past present and future, time as a destructive force and then finally the sublimation of time. Karuna is based on the life of Mother Teresa and her compassion to the world. Siddhartha (based on the 1922 novel by Herman Hesse) is also about one’s inner conflicts.

“My choreographies are never prosaic. I use poetry and make it suggestive. I like to leave some space so that the person who receives it uses his/her imagination to fill that space. The works we are going to present are all aphorisms I found somewhere or the other. All are natural reflections of what we desire or aspire to be. How we choose the subject of our work and how we treat them speaks volumes about us as choreographers,” Ileana signs off.

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