T. KRITHIKA REDDY
As Alliance Francaise's Festival of France raises a toast to Jean-Francois Lesage, T. KRITHIKA REDDY catches up with the embroiderer who has made Chennai proud
Dub dub, dub dub… the sound is rhythmic and relentless. In a clutter-free room in Apparao Galleries, four unpretentious artisans are engaged in creating yet another embroidered masterpiece. With amazing speed they punch the fabric and twist the thread barely noticing the chattering visitors. On the walls are framed pieces, testimony to their intricate work, which adorn famous palaces and museums across the world. Overseeing the artisans, Jean-Francois Lesage says with his French accent intact, “I'm zust the gentleman who organises the parties… a master of ceremonies. Zhey are the real heroes.” Waving his hands in the air, he adds, “It's not an art, it's a craft. And I'm proud to be amid craftsmen.”
At a show specially put together as part of Alliance Francaise's Bonjour India (Festival of France) to showcase the embroidery done by Jean-Francois Lesage in Chennai, the fourth generation embroiderer who is keen on taking the Lesage legacy forward says, “I find it very interesting. Even in these modern times, Indian craftsmen manage to maintain that inimitable link to perfection. That's why I chose this route. It's Chennai, via Paris to the entire world.”
Lesage who has been bringing together “Indian hand skills and French embroidery” since 1994, when he launched the full-fledged Vastrakala in the city with his associates, feels his work reflects a synergy of cultures. Arching his eyebrows, he says, “From the beginning, I was lucky to get some of the best craftsmen. Absolutely golden fingers.”
Showcasing the best
This combined with a distinct French aesthetic helped Lesage create some of the best hand embroidery ever. On display at the exhibition are works that celebrate the pomp and purity of the centuries-old craft. From the Art Nouveau-style sample created for the Palace of Thailand and the restoration of the XVII Century four-poster bed of Madame Fouquet for the palace of Vaux le Vicomte, Paris to the reproduction work for the Chamber of Lanvin exhibited at the Louvre, and the tree of life translated into a beautiful design on a sari, every piece is the closest embroidery can get to poetry. Ari, dimensional, shaded… there's a variety of sewing styles and techniques on show.
“Even in a fast-moving, fast-changing world, I'm convinced the labour-intensive craft certainly finds a place. With everything getting standardised, there isn't much around to surprise the eye. So anything created by hand is considered ultimate luxury and will always be respected. I'm happy playing my little role in bringing to light the wonderful skill of these artisans. It's important to make them feel proud of the noble work they do.”
Patting a karigar gently and acknowledging his good work, Lesage continues, “I share a fantastic bond with my craftsmen. I support them and they take such good care of me. It's a special relationship — one that's taken both of us on an incredible international journey.”
Hailing from a family that's decorated the interiors of several royal spaces, including that of Napoleon III, Queen Elizabeth II and the King of Thailand, and having been an integral thread in the haute couture scene in the West (by doing embroidery for famed fashion houses such as Yves Saint Laurent, Dior, Lanvin, Chanel and Calvin Klein), Lesage did not want to hit the natural route and wield the needle. Instead, he tried his hand at auctioneering. “But the desire to do something more substantial brought me to India. When I discovered the incredible skill here, I decided to stay on and support the craft. Today, Chennai is home — I'm only born French. There's a lot of joy and energy in a changing city. But it must take care to build on the strong foundation of its tradition. I've been here for about 16 years. I'm 43, but I feel like I've just celebrated my 25th birthday. I'm enjoying every moment of my work here,” he concludes with a perfect Namaste.