A language lover and ambassador of Indian culture in French Guadeloupe

Updated - June 11, 2024 06:56 am IST

Published - June 10, 2024 10:40 pm IST - Puducherry

Padma Shri awardee Fred Negrit.

Padma Shri awardee Fred Negrit. | Photo Credit: S.S. KUMAR

Padma awardee Fred Negrit, who hails from the Guadeloupe archipelago, is a linguaphile with an enduring passion for Indian heritage.

One of the four Frenchmen to be awarded the prestigious Padma Shri by the Government of India this year, and the first to be conferred the honour in the French West Indies arc of islands administered by Paris, Mr. Negrit is a teacher-linguist, a decorated Red Cross resource, an Indologist, and, as he revealed, “an ardent devotee of Lord Anjeneya”.

Mr. Negrit was on a visit to the city of ancestral roots—a fifth generation descendant of a family of job-seeking emigres who went to the French archipelagos, many of whom would end up as indentured plantation labourers—after recently receiving the Padma Shri from President Droupadi Murmu for his accomplishments in literature and education and his stellar role in propagating Indian language and culture in the Guadeloupe region.

“There is a growing interest in Indian language and culture back home”, said Mr. Negrit, who founded the Counseil Guadeloupeen Pour les Langues Indiennes (Council for Indian languages) in 2002 to institutionalise his two decades-long activities of teaching Indian language and culture to a mixed demographic of learners, some as young as eight, others as old as 80.

Given his self-effacing nature, the onus falls on his associate Rosy Varrey Sheikhboudhou, to reveal more about his contributions that have sparked this burgeoning interest in India, its languages, culture and cuisines. In fact, she shares an incident about how even the destruction of his home in a fire in 2015, and having to build anew, would not deter him from hosting an inter-religious and cultural conference a couple of months away.

Mr. Negrit, whose interest in India was inspired by his grandmother, began to provide basic language teaching in a pre-internet period beginning with Hindi classes in 2007 at the College de Douville school from where he retired as teacher. At that time, he had to bring in guest teachers from Trinidad.

“In the initial phase, it was important for us to convince people of Indian origin to keep the language of their ancestral roots alive”, he recalls. “These days, our classrooms are diverse with learners from across walks of life...not just those with Indian connection but also several foreign nationals are exploring Indian language and culture”.

He realised early on the need to formulate a non-formal methodology of instruction. “Our classes involved not only learning the alphabets but a great deal of colloquial inputs and magnetic tape recordings for phonetic aspects. Still, it was handicap that outside the classroom milieu, there was no scope for conversing in a language other than French”.

Technology has made things easier these days as we can commission online classes, video tutorials, movie viewing and celebration of festivals such as Pongal, Diwali, Holi and Sree Krishna Jayanthi, as tools to access Indian language and culture.

Mr. Negrit says that among the purposes of his visit to Puducherry was to explore academic partnerships to take forward language learning programmes in Hindi, Tamil, and more recently initiated, Sanskrit, which are organised in Guadeloupe.

While he has been here a few times to bring small groups of students, who are keen on learning Tamil and culture by tying up with private tutors, he hopes to firm up collaboration with an institution on the lines of the existing distance education partnerships with the Hindi Prachar Sabha and Central Hindi Directorate in Delhi and the Tamil Virtual Academy in Chennai.

Mr. Negrit believes that his contributions to the field of indology are but a fraction of what he owes back to India, its diversity of languages and culture. “India is very much a part of me now”, says the Padma awardee, whose undying convinction it is that coming into contact with the culture has made him the person he is.

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