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Frenchman's Indian romance

"India through the eyes of Alain Danielou" features photographs that depict the country in the mid-1900s

IT'S A Frenchman's view of India all right, but what makes this Frenchman's view different is the fact that he is Alain Danielou, musician and artist who studied Hindi and Sanskrit and was director of the College of Indian Music at Benares for five years. And the fact that the exhibition "India through the eyes of Alain Danielou" displays photographs that capture the country in the mid-1900s.

From 1935 to 1955, Alain Danielou and Raymond Burnier lived and travelled across the country, learning, discovering, teaching, absorbing and imbibing India. Apart from being a musician and scholar, Danielou was interested in ancient architecture and made long trips to Orissa, Rajasthan and Central India to study Hindu sculpture and architecture. He published seminal works on the religion, philosophy, music, sculpture, architecture, history and folklore of India besides yoga.

Danielou, who died in 1994, was instrumental in getting Indian music recognised in the West as a form of classical music (on par with the Western classical tradition) and not as folkloric music, explains Jean-Louis Gabin, who is curating the show. "The idea of this exhibition is to return to India all that Alain Danielou learnt from it," says Gabin.

The photographs on show are a lot like any foreigner would take of India — sadhus with towering topknots, little boys by the river, lonely lingams and peasants in their fields, but what makes them different is the fact that they give one a glimpse into the lives of Indians more than 60 years ago. Danielou and Burnier have captured the magnificent wooden bridges of Srinagar that used to weather floods and storms, Oriya musicians with their dholaks whose clothes do not seem to have changed much since the 1940s and mountainside shepherds seeming to meditate on their tasks and children peering out of their homes in Kulu. Simple observations and descriptions appended to the photographs give Danielou's opinions and thoughts on the place or the person captured. The note accompanying the photograph of Amarkantak, a sacred place high in the Vindhyas, says, "In attempting to get there, we burned out the car's clutch because the gradient was so steep. It is sometimes perilous to try to reach heaven." And the photograph of a massive yagna conducted in Benares, during the pre-Independence negotiations to ask God to protect the country from the modernism of Nehru, Gandhi and the Congress, says, "Apparently despite its copiousness, it was not effective." There are snatches from Danielou's life in Santiniketan, including a portrait of Rabindranath Tagore.

Apart from being in black and white, what lends the pictures a weathered feel are the spanking new frames that seem to contrast starkly with the faded, slightly scratched look of the photographs. The exhibition, which will travel around the 15 Alliance Françaises in India, is on till today, 9.30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Alliance Française of Madras Gallery, College Road, Nungambakkam.


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