In a buildup to a year-long celebration of one of the world's richest and most diverse cultures, India is flavour of the month in France. The spotlight, however, has swerved from the fairytale world of maharajas to tribal craftsmen.
- Display at the "Other Masters Of India"
- Sundari Bai(L) and Mohanlal
- Indian artist Jivya Soma Mashe
A recent exhibition of priceless autochrome colour photographs nearly 100 years old drew more than 100,000 visitors -- a record for the Albert Kahn museum in Paris -- captivating visitors with everyday scenes and palace life in a country whose native rulers behaved like God.
AdvertisementThat was followed by an ongoing show at the Fondation Pierre Berge Yves Saint Laurent again showcasing the wildly decadent universe of the erstwhile ruling class who squandered millions a night at gaming tables in Nice and Biarritz, and ordered priceless jewellery from top Parisian bijoutiers.
The Maharaja exhibition focuses on the fabulous clothes and jewelry they sported, some acquired for sums equalling the budget of a small present-day nation.
A case in point is the famed Patiala necklace ordered by the king of a former princely state in northern India -- the most expensive order ever handled by the House of Cartier.
The pendulous multi-layered art deco necklace delivered in 1928 comprised nearly 3,000 diamonds, including the famed 234-carat De Beers, one of the largest ever found.
Court attire covers extravagant silk and brocaded sherwanis, or long coats, turbans and womens' costumes, with ceremonial swords, richly embroidered elephant saddles, and fabulous gems.
A zillion lights years away is the just-opened "Other Masters of India" at the Quai Branly museum portraying the lives of tribal artisans living in remote villages, until recently far removed from modern day life.
It showcases cunning bamboo baskets crafted by the Nagas, a tribe of fierce former headhunters from fareastern India, cire-perdu (known as lost wax) brass and metal statues from the central Bastar region, and clay bas reliefs traditionally crafted by women in the nearby Chhatisgarh area.
"The main aim is to show how today's tribes portray their current predicament in their art," Jyotindra Jain, who curated the show, told AFP.
"The brush with civilization often is traumatic. A railway station which opens near a village brings in factories, cars and the old way of life is gone forever.'
Jain shows two traditional scrolls from the Santal tribe spread in parts of central and eastern India to illustrate his point.
The first is a traditional scroll showing creation according to the Santals, involving cows, divine nectar and ensuing humankind.
The second portrays police brutality and scenes of violence that Jain says the tribes encounter on coming into contact with the world around them.
"A recent report showed there are more than 100,000 people languishing in jail although their cases have not been heard," he said. "This kind of art shows the effect it can have on a collective psyche."
The brush with modernity also comes out in other ways as 24-year-old Kishore Mhase explained. A member of the Warli tribe from the western state of Maharshtra famed for geometrical paintings with stick-like human representations, she said the subject matter has changed.
"We used to draw human forms, gods and goddesses and birds, trees and plants. My uncle went to Sweden recently. He now does train platforms and airports."
The works of Sundaribai, an artist from central India whose people are reknowned for clay sculptures and earthen bas-relief works, also underline a change in subject matter. "I see new things and I get inspired," she said, putting the finishing touches on a tile depicting the Eiffel Tower and its surroundings.
Intricate paintings by Gond tribesmen -- reminiscent of Australian aboriginal art -- also reflect the trend, showing bird-shaped planes and the Ambassador car, a boxy derivative of a 1950s British model which dominated Indian roads for decades until its free market reforms of 1991.
Apart from the show at the Quai Branly, Paris' newest arthouse, another exhibition offers exquisitely detailed miniatures from the courts of medieval India and drawing from Central Asian and Persian art forms.
But the icing on the cake will be a months-long Indian festival celebrating the art forms, music, food and fashion of a mini continent that opens on April 14 with a performance by famed classical dancer Mallika Sarabhai.
"It will go on for more than a year and we will be staging events in several French cities," said Indian embassy official Namrata Kumar.
"The aim is to bring India to France like never before," she said.
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