7 February 2010

Don’t Just Say Cheese!: The festival of France in India, 2010

A huge new festival is changing our perception of French culture as something inaccessible.

IT’S A regular Sunday outside Select Citiwalk, one of the malls that form a buffer between the South Delhi neighbourhood of Saket and the older urban villages of Khirkee and Hauz Rani across the road. There’s the usual mix of people: serious shoppers, given away by their purposeful stride; moviegoers rushing for the evening show; the majority simply shooting the breeze. Suddenly, everyone stops short at the sight of a herd of giraffes, their crenellated crimson necks moving gently up and down to the discordant, otherworldly music, like creatures from some surreal forest. The crowd gathers in hushed anticipation, pointing out to their children the stiltwalkers inside the fabric limbs. Mobile phone cameras whirr and click as the woman in white fur begins to sing. First come the unfamiliar French lyrics in a tremulous operatic voice. Then, amid a shower of red confetti, come the familiar Hindi words, “Par ab yeh mera jeevan sathi hai…” (But now he is my life partner…).

The crowd is spellbound. “Is this an Indian company?” asks the lady next to me. When told they’re French, she seems both thrilled and disbelieving. Her reaction is one echoed by many viewers at Bonjour India events in 18 Indian cities since December 2009. “I went expecting sobriety, sophistication. That was my notion of French culture. But Dobet Gnahoré had the audience dancing in the aisles, singing along to lyrics they didn’t understand,” says a delighted Radhika Puri, who attended a concert by the 24- year-old Paris-based singersongwriter, originally from the Ivory Coast. “Gnahoré is part of the new vision of France that the festival represents — a France that goes beyond cheese and wine,” says a spokesperson from the French Embassy, which is organising Bonjour India along with Teamwork Productions. Jérôme Bonnafont, French ambassador to India, concurs: “We decided to focus not on the classical France that people are used to, but a France of diversity and youth, along with glimpses of France’s links with India.”

So Indian audiences “used to classical dance” were treated to the stunning hip hop acrobatics of Wasteland–Compagnie Käfig. If we saw early 20th century images of princely and plebian India from the Albert Kahn Collection, we also had three shows from the cutting edge of contemporary photographic practice: Yann Arthus- Bertrand’s astonishing aerial views of everything from tilapia fish nests in Gabon to Gujarati fabrics drying in the sun; the arresting, surreal images of Bernard Faucon; and Olivier Culmann’s affecting portraits of television viewers hypnotised by their screens. “In Morocco, it was difficult. People insisted on giving me the place in front of the TV, as the guest,” says Culmann. “In India, access was easy. In Kochi, I knocked on people’s doors when I heard the television from inside, and asked to photograph them. Many agreed. I was surprised at how easily people forgot me in their own drawing rooms.”

The India connection forms a running thread through the festival. There was an 1852 French opera (If I Were King), but with the crucial inclusion of Indian dancers and musicians. Jean Francois Lesage’s consummate reproductions of classic French embroidery panels were exhibited alongside demonstrations by his Madras-based embroiderers. Lesage, who comes from a French line of embroiderers dating back to 1868, set up the Maison Lesage in Madras in 1993 after finding a community of craftsmen in Sriperumbudur. But our textiles, of course, have a long historical connection with Europe. “Old French castles would have a kalamkari from Masulipatam,” Lesage says. Like Lesage, the Bonjour India festival is reviving old links while creating new ones.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 06, Dated February 13, 2010

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