May 2010
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From Bonjour to Namaste

Cole Porter made the French capital enthralling with his everlasting lyrics "I love Paris in the springtime”. The sun is shining, yet there's a refreshing crispness in the air. The cafes are overflowing; young lovers kiss artfully; and the museums are chockfull of Easter enthusiasts. Amid this ambience, India this week launched a 15-month cultural festival,'Namaste France’, to reciprocate France's 'Bonjour India’, a two-month-long festival organised in 18 Indian cities.

At the Musee du Quai Branly, Mallika Sarabhai and her Darpana Academy troupe presented a dance tableau against the backdrop of adivasi arts. It was, perhaps, befitting that the daughter of the father of the Indian space programme - Vikram Sarabhai - provided the performance. Indo-French co-operation in space has been a cornerstone of the interface between the two nations.

In 1985,four years of planning preceded the unveiling of the Festival of India in France.A spectacularly colourful exposition exploded on the cascading tiers of the Trocadero,with Rajiv Gandhi,the then Prime Minister, accompanied by a reticent Sonia, watching from heights of the Eiffel Tower. It was a suitably exalting presence for an apex bilateral event.

India now routinely attracts far greater attention on French media than it did 25 years ago. Yet the distinguished Dr Karan Singh, who did the honours this time, could not be deemed to be of the same recognition level as Rajiv.Besides, Namaste France is reportedly an afterthought, hurriedly construed in a matter of four months. It’s a risky strategy in a culturally perceptive country like France. Cultural diplomacy is much appreciated by the French; but this needs to be incisive for India to enter their consciousness.

But the now unveiled adivasi arts, an exhibition on the city of Lucknow, another on royal costumes and one on contemporary arts could well tickle the Parisian palate. The release of the first of seven volumes of the Ramayana, illustrated in miniatures, also sounds stimulating. And the performing arts, especially classical dances, have the potential to engage, except that connoisseurs in France are now knowledgeable enough and cannot be deceived by ordinary displays, which ICCR's arbitrary selection of artistes sometimes throws up.

Fashion and gastronomy may arouse curiosity; but the French, it must be remembered, fancy themselves on clothing design and gourmet food. On the other hand, ayurveda and yoga will probably provoke keen interest. To coincide with his 150th birth anniversary, an exhibition of Rabindra Nath Tagore's paintings will conclude the festival in May-July of 2011.The Nobel laureate was arguably never as talented a painter as he was a poet. One wonders how the French will react!

France had during the Cold War been unabashedly close to Pakistan; and one of its major arms suppliers. It's an intimacy it's yet to abandon. Recently, though, it rejected a civil nuclear deal with India's neighbour and, instead, offered technology to secure its reactors. Also, with China embarking on economic reforms in 1978, the French joined the bandwagon to Beijing. India, perceived in Paris as an anglophile entity tied to Moscow's apron strings, was still to register on its radar screen.

Yet, a section of French movie buffs were sufficiently cognisant of overseas cinema to be enamoured of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak.Retrospectives of these two directors will comprise a panorama of Indian films of various genres in Paris, Marseille, La Rochelle and Guadaloupe.

In 1981, Indira Gandhi's live television interview in French bestirred an expansive but proud people. But it was not until P V Narasimha Rao,also competent in French, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, enticed the West with economic liberalisation in 1991 that the footfall increased between the two countries. India has much to accomplish with France, with trade having nosedived by a whopping 29 per cent last year. It can acquire its cutting edge, fourth generation civil nuclear technology, incorporate its superfast trains and absorb more Airbuses. But what will New Delhi do to boost its exports?

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