‘My second life is in India, with my paintings,' says Olaf Van Cleef, who paints gods and goddesses for Indian puja rooms. We meet the scion of the famous Van Cleef family

Olaf Van Cleef, scion of the illustrious Van Cleef family and counsellor on high range jewellery at Cartier for three decades, sometimes wishes he could be known — and recognised — for just being ‘Olaf'.

“People back home always tell me, ‘Oh, you're very lucky you have a good name' or ‘Oh, you work in Cartier',” he says in his heavily accented English. “No one says ‘you're lucky to be Olaf'.”

That's why he loves coming to India, he says: “In India, I have created for myself my own life, separate from the name and the job.”

Inspired by mythology

That life is linked to the paintings he started doing over a decade ago — delicate, intricately detailed works studded with Swarovski crystal and tiny squares of chocolate wrappers, paintings inspired by Indian mythology and royalty, created painstakingly in his spare time, usually in the wee hours of the morning. Over the years, he's exhibited them extensively across the country, beginning with his first exhibition right here in Chennai, and today, he has an exclusive group of buyers he caters to in each city.

He was back in Chennai recently for a private viewing of his latest set of 18 works, as part of a country-wide tour. He might like just being plain ol' Olaf (or ‘Mr. Cleef', as he says Indians are wont to call him) while here, but the exhibition is conducted in a style that's very much in keeping with his Van Cleef and Cartier heritage — paintings scattered across the tastefully opulent sitting room of the Presidential Suite at Taj Coromandel, and later, a classy sit-down dinner for his select guests.

“I have a niche market of high-end customers who buy my paintings of gods and goddesses for their puja room,” says the 62-year-old, adding with enthusiasm: “It's totally unique, no? Such paintings are usually created in India and exported to the world, but I do them in France and bring them to India.” (He is, he assures me, extremely careful about rendering the figures correctly, right down to the position of the sacred thread — “I don't do any sacrilege,” as he puts it)

But it's not all fancy hotel suites and moneyed buyers. Olaf had just returned from Puducherry, where he inaugurated his studio — Van Cleef Hall. Sleekly modern in style and construction, the Hall is situated not in the French Quarter, as you might expect, but in Vaithikuppam (“I don't like the French [colonial] story. India is India”), and is a space not just for his own works, but also for local artists who can rent it for Rs. 2,000.

“The idea is not profit, but cultural exchange,” he says. “I've also offered it to others, such a doctor who wanted to vaccinate children, and some meditation groups.” (Its balcony also, he tells me with a laugh, serves as a makeshift swimming pool for neighbourhood kids in the rainy season.)

It's fitting, as Puducherry (“it's one of India's most spiritual cities”) is where Olaf first found inspiration for his Indian art pieces. “I saw some paintings of Raja Ravi Varma in a temple store, and noticed that the men in his works often wore more beautiful jewellery than the women!” he says smiling. “As a jeweller, I just loved the idea — it's not something seen in European culture.”

He began painting Lord Krishna, then Ganesha, then Hanuman, just for the joy of detailing that beautiful jewellery (“exactly my job at Cartier, but on paper”). But over time, the softly coloured water colour paintings evolved, as he added in signature elements from the abstracts he used to do (“a wink to my older customers — Olaf has not totally changed”), then the miniscule dots (done with felt tips as thin as 0.05 mm) that add dimension to his works, and then the plaster-based dobs of white that add delicate texture.

Long hours

“Each of my works takes 150 to 200 hours to create,” he says, showing me the three-tier spectacles he uses for this incredibly fine work (the third one enlarges the images by 60 times the original size), plonking them on my nose for emphasis. “I listen to Mozart and work from 2 a.m. to 7 a.m. I can spend three hours working in just two-cm square; it gives me joy.” As his retirement approaches — at the age of 70 — Olaf plans to spend more and more time in Puducherry, working at his studio and driving around in his white Ambassador.

“My second life is here in India, with my paintings,” he says. “So I won't really retire — I worked with diamonds before, and will work with diamonds (crystals) after!”

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THE INDIA CONNECTION

Olaf's grandmother spent her honeymoon in India, and often stayed at the Bella Vista suite in Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai, for long periods. He first visited India with her at age 14.

When he returned over a decade later, he travelled across the country, and that inspired his travelogue “From Darjeeling to Pondicherry” (1998)

He was in charge of the Cartier mission in India from 1986 to 2002