Indian crafts persons and French embroidery make a perfect match under Jean-Francois Lesage's eyes.

Come January-end, and Delhi will play host to an exhibition of exquisite French embroidery, ‘Through the Eye of a Needle', as part of the nationwide Bonjour India festival. The embroidery is not imported from France though. It is produced by Jean-Francois Lesage's crafts unit, Vastrakala, by Indian craftsmen in India. Besides the craft, the exhibition is also intended to be a presentation on the production unit, where visitors see the transition of simple threads to a work of art worth cherishing.

The Lesage family in Paris is, undisputedly, the first family of embroidery, being in the craft since 1868 and supplying to Napolean III before that. Jean-Francois Lesage's father, Francois Lesage, is a couture legend, once described by Christian Lacroix as the person who convinced him of the “emptiness” of an unembellished garment.

Chain stitch

Reaching him over the phone, we found Monsieur Jean-Francois Lesage on vacation in Hampi. Incidentally, it was while travelling, way back in 1991-92 that Lesage stumbled upon Indian embroidery and craftspersons.

“I was once in Benaras. There was a blackout in the whole city and only one shop had electricity. Here, an embroiderer was sitting bent over his work under a single electric bulb,” recalls Lesage.

“I discovered that the technique and material was the same. The chain stitch, for example, is common to both. The only difference between Indian and French embroidery was in ornament and design. You see, embroidery travelled all along the Silk Route.”

Soon, in 1993, he set up Vastrakala in Chennai with his associates. “I fell in love with India. When I first set foot atDelhi airport, I felt at home,” he says.

“When I set up Vastrakala, the focus was on extremely high-quality products. It's the story not only of the craft but also of the over 100 people working there. We want to prove that anything done by hand can be a part of the future too,” Lesage says.

Besides embroidered home linen and upholstery, Vastrakala is also involved in heritage restoration and reinterpretation of the masters of the art. Current restoration projects include work in the legendary Louvre, as well as work in private residences.

“One of the houses we're doing has the largest Art Deco collection in Paris. We're doing embroidery on 10 metres of fabric for armchairs, which will take up 15,000 to 20,000 hours of work by the craftsmen,” Lesage explains.

Will Jean-Francois Lesage ever turn to couture, considering family legacy? “Maybe we would, but that would be specially for the Indian clients. Indian women have a great comprehensive skill for embroidery. It's not like in the West, where one would wear an embroidered dress only once. Here it's not just about the look, but also the work. Abroad it's about the general effect. Here people look from the micro to macro.”

“Indian craftsmen are never rewarded enough for their efforts, because of which most of them are moving to professions which provide a more steady income. You have to be very courageous to be a craftsman in India today,” he laments on the other hand.

Jean-Francois Lesage is a great believer in the role of local crafts in preserving the identity of a place. “One day people will live the same way in Delhi, Paris, New York and Tokyo. Then, it is the local handmade crafts that will differentiate them.”

He's also partly in awe of Indian craftsmen. “Even if a sari takes 5,000 hours of work, they are not afraid and do it with patience and concentration. It's a beautiful balance; bringing a little electrical French input and softening it with Indian creativity.”

French painter Gerard Garouste is the inspiration behind the upcoming event in Delhi, and one of his works, specially created for the exhibition, will be reinterpreted by the craftsmen for the visitors. “Like me, Garouste is a great believer in what the human hand can make.”

Besides embroidery made by Indian craftspersons with French designs, the exhibition features live demonstration of techniques.

The exhibition will be held at the Alliance Francaise in Delhi from January 30 to February 4.

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