You’re not dangerous. You’re simply mad."

That’s what Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, the late legendary doyen of Odissi, once told Ileana Citaristi. Her reluctance to leave India often made him wonder if she was an Italian spy. But after visiting her hometown in Bergamo, he settled for the simpler explanation: lunacy. And Citaristi doesn’t deny it.

Consider the scenario: A young Italian woman comes to India in 1979 with only a small bag. It contains a few personal items, a small tape recorder, and a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Twenty-nine years later, she’s still here.

Why? She isn’t sure. She knows she started out as an archetypal seeker. Despite a background in traditional and experimental Western dance theatre, she was still dissatisfied and was seeking a body language that would answer her need for authentic self-expression. Her doctorate in psychoanalysis and Eastern mythology had been stimulating, but there remained a thirst for dimensions beyond the cerebral.

Oddly enough, her spiritual quest led her to a small bylane in Cuttack, Orissa, to the abode of Mohapatra. Back then, her aim was to choreograph a dance theatre work, using Odissi and Kathakali techniques. “I don’t remember exactly at which point the plans started taking their own directions," Citaristi says. “I only know that slowly, the theatre project vanished from my mind; the return ticket was thrown away and only Cuttack, Odissi and Kelucharan Mohapatra remained... The destination became that little lane where Guruji’s house was situated."

It wasn’t easy. Today, draped in traditional Indian attire, Citaristi could be mistaken for Indian.

In step: Citaristi will perform at the Pune Festival this month

The journey from mutineer to a shishya (pupil), willing to submit to the rigours of a hierarchical classical art form was a gradual one. “Through the discipline of dance I rediscovered certain aspects of my femininity which had been brutally discarded during the rebellious years of the feminine revolution," Citaristi says. Slowly, the rainbow skirts and sleeveless tops were replaced by a sari, earrings and a bindi. “Finally, I can see your face!" her guru exclaimed the day she entered class with her hair tied. But crucially, the process didn’t domesticate her wild spirit as much as channel her scattered energies.

Unknowingly, Citaristi was part of a wider trend in Indian dance—a trend that viewed the dancer as a dynamic collaborator with her classical context, rather than a passive cultural ambassador. The 1980s and 1990s witnessed a growing tribe of Indian dancers seeking new directions in their art, striving to relate traditional forms with contemporary realities.

In an attempt to infuse robust energies into highly refined classical dance forms, many turned instinctively to yoga and the martial arts. Citaristi was no exception. While some tried to imbue traditional grammars with topical content, Citaristi is among those who explored the possibilities of abstraction with a quiet determination and a refreshing refusal to prettify.

It is her richly chequered background that makes Citaristi more than just another talented Odissi dancer. If there has been ferment in her life, there is abundant evidence of that in her work. For her dance vocabulary does not limit itself to the sinuous lyricism of Odissi. After years of training, it encompasses the free, intense, muscular grace of Mayurbhanj Chhau (the ancient Orissa martial art) as well.

Seven years after she came to India, she choreographed Echo and Narcissus, her first creative venture in Chhau. Since then, her body of experimental work has grown considerably. “My Chhau compositions are more experimental than the Odissi ones," she remarks. “Chhau lends itself easily to abstract rendition since it is a total body language without the detailed hand vocabulary and strict footwork of Odissi."

Citaristi has lived for the past 15 years in Bhubaneswar, on the banks of the Bindusagar tank, where she started her own dance academy, Art Vision, in 1995. The Padma Shree came her way in 2006—a significant moment for a woman whose life and aspirations are so India-centred that she actually feels like a “tourist" in Italy. However, the synthesis between her old world and the new—the cultural and intellectual legacy of her upbringing and her discovered language of expression—is something she still seeks.

But she’s in no doubt about one thing: Orissa is home. “People do ask, ‘Why Orissa?’ ‘Why for so long?’" She has no answers. Conveniently, in India there’s always the karmic explanation. Or, as she’s learnt to quip, “Man proposes, and Lord Jagannath disposes!"

Ileana Citaristi will perform at the Balgandharva Rang Mandir at the Pune Festival on 8 September.

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