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Sculpting cultural links

Christophe Le Du, outgoing director of the Alliance Francaise, Chennai, spoke about his fascination for India and its ancient culture in a recent interview.

"SUMAITHANGI," SAID Christophe Le Du, without the slightest trace of an accent. The outgoing director of the Alliance Francaise, Chennai is savouring his last two weeks in the city. He leaves on August 1 for Johannesburg, South Africa, for his next posting. In a recent interview at Amethyst, Gopalapuram, he described his experiences...

"I was fascinated by the concept of Sumaithangi stones that are a unique feature of Tamil Nadu. So when sculptor Swaminathan came up with the idea of stone sculpture with this theme, I got it done at the Alliance Francaise."

Asked about the story of his life and his stint in Chennai, Christophe said, with a smile, "I think it is the stone that binds us. "Tamil Nadu is a granite country and I come from Brittany, which is also a granite country."

His paternal ancestors migrated to eastern France after Brittany became part of France. In the 18th Century, they were sailors. Christophe recalled how fascinated he had been by two antique glass cupboards he had seen while on a visit to his grandparents. The cupboards were filled with trinkets that the sailors had brought from all over the world. As a little boy he would beg for the key to play with the artefacts. "Now, I have a similar cupboard filled with objects of interest collected during my travels and it was my turn to be amused when my little son asked me for the key to the cupboard."

Young Christophe knew he wanted to travel and bring back memories and trinkets but had no idea how. He dreamt of working abroad. May be sailing or founding a restaurant in some exotic part of the globe. He travelled as a student, discovered the Alliance Francaise and enrolled as a volunteer French teacher. "But I love this life," says Christophe. Before Chennai it was in Naplouse (autonomous territory of Palestine) and before that it was Cairo. After Chennai, his next destination is Johannesburg, where he will be in charge of networking with many regions in Africa.

At the farewell function held in the Alliance Francaise on College Road, he spoke only in French. A Kathak dance recital by Isabelle of Mantapa in Paris, was a highlight. In the intermission, Christophe entertained the guests with anecdotes from his life, his experiences in Chennai and sang songs (his own compositions), while playing the guitar.

Christophe has packed much more than French teaching and travel into his life. He has published several books, composed music and cut discs and was the executive producer of a play for street theatre "Mascarade" in Naplouse in 1997. He even acted in a film "Chronique d'une disparition" in 1996.

As a student, he was interested in history and language and studied Islamic History. "But being in India is something else," he said. "It is a privilege to be in a country, which is perhaps ten million years old and deeply intense. As a student, one talks about different periods of time in history, culture and literature. But each period is a few thousand years. Imagine being in India, which has a continuous culture for so many thousands of years! I believe that the last Cultural Revolution took place 10,000 years ago! And this cultural tradition continues even today, without a break!"

"In some villages of Tamil Nadu one can find the Sumaithangi stones, said to be over 4,000 years old, and people still erect them. I guess it is granite that has made me feel comfortable in the Middle East and in India, the two cultures that have been continuously occupied since mythological times.

"I find it difficult to express my feelings about Chennai. I love the blend of flavours, the unique perfume of the city, its sounds, its music, and the tensions caused by the juxtaposition of tradition with modernity. I have seen cellular phones and supermarkets becoming part of the city. Amazing to see how people here adapt so easily to change.

His best memory of Chennai?

"My best memory is a concert that we organised at the Senate Hall in the University at the beginning of my tenure. It was a small group, which came from Hyderabad, with two grand pianos tied to a horse drawn carriage. There was a small crowd. Suddenly, there was a heavy downpour with thunder and lightning. The musicians paused in the middle of the concert to listen to the rain lashing outside. I feel it was the right event, taking place at the right place and the right time. I always like to promote such events in heritage places."

Any regrets? "Oh! Yes, that I have not been able to pick up enough Tamil to savour the literature. And, of course, not getting an opportunity to act in a Tamil movie."

V. R. DEVIKA

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