India in Paris

From Elaine’s Lumière column for T Magazine’s The Moment.

Gabriela Plump
Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis in Paris.

 

There are times when Paris is touched by other cultures. The touch may be temporary — like a spritz of perfume. Or it can open up a well-established world hiding in plain sight.
This is Paris’s India moment.

 

In December, Karl Lagerfeld took inspiration from India for his Paris-Bombay collection for Chanel, which included Nehru jackets, sweaters that draped like saris and opulent beading and embroidery. “Paris-Delhi-Bombay,” which examined India through the prism of 50 Indian and French artists, was the Centre Pompidou’s most ambitious exhibition of the past year. And on Jan. 27, the Petit Palais museum will display nearly 100 paintings and designs by Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Having begun to paint late in life, he created a large body of works on paper — bold, bright visions of fantasy and mystery.

 

In fact, Paris has long contained pockets of Indian culture. The Musée Guimet , for example, houses a small but serious collection of Indian art, including sculptures of wood, clay, basalt, bronze, sandstone and schist dating from as early as the third millennium B.C.

 

Courtesy of the Rabindra Bhavana Collection, Santiniketan
Rabindranath Tagore’s “1 Animal” on display at the Petit Palais museum in Paris.

 

There’s good shopping, too. Mandalas, one of my favorite boutiques in Paris, and where I bring visitors looking for gifts, is not French but Indian-Tibetan. For about 30 euros, you can find the most beautiful drop earrings with semiprecious stones from Jaipur. And at Le Cachemirien, a shop in the heart of Saint Germain, Rosenda Meer sells some of the finest cashmere in Paris. A double-sided shawl — moss green on one side and muted rust on the other — costs 1,500 euros.

 

Yet if you know where to look, there is a more complex picture of Indian Paris just beyond the gemstones. The French had a reed-thin colonial connection to the subcontinent, and in 1674, on behalf of Louis XIV, they negotiated the creation of a trading post at Pondicherry on the southeastern coast of the Bay of Bengal. It changed hands over the centuries before rejoining India in 1956, but it has retained a soupçon of Frenchness.

 

The region also sent a small number of Indian Tamils to Paris, who were joined by other Tamil refugees after Indian and Sri Lankan independence in the late 1940s (with smaller numbers of Punjabis, Bengalis, Sikhs and Gujaratis to follow). More came to France in the 1980s after Britain made it harder for immigrants from the subcontinent to settle there. A pocket of the 10th Arrondissement northeast of the Gare du Nord became “Little India.”

 

The neighborhood is rough-edged, working class and very authentic. If you come, check your map and plot a walking route in advance. When you emerge from the Chapelle Metro, you don’t want to look like you’re lost. Or like a tourist. The area is more adventurous than dangerous, but still it’s not Saint-Germain-des-Pres. You will, however, always find someone who speaks more English than French.

 

If a gritty urban settings leaves you skittish, call Poonam Chawla and she, with the help of her son Nikhil Bhowmick, will guide you on a tour of the neighborhood. She also runs a small cooking school specializing in northern Indian cuisine (with simple recipes learned from her mother) from her apartment in the upscale 16th Arrondissement.

 

The first time I visited the neighborhood, I came in search of small colorful metal bangles worn by young girls. (They come in cylinders with about 24 bangles each, and about a dozen bangles mixed together make perfect napkin rings.) I passed shops selling Bollywood DVDs at bargain prices and Indian tailors, food shops, restaurants and travel agencies offering cheap flights to India.

 

I found the bangles in the sari and costume jewelry shops that dot the Faubourg Saint-Denis, the main street of the neighborhood. These are busy shops that cater to brides-to-be, and many are not accustomed to curious Westerners who aren’t necessarily there to buy. But Chennai Silks is particularly welcoming. Saris there start at 25 euros and go up to the hundreds for a fine one of beaded and embroidered. Indian Designs dazzles with its wall of costume and real necklaces and earrings, and offers more than 150 patterns of bangles, hundreds of saris and fine cotton embroidered pajamas for men and women. When it’s not too busy, Abdul Aziz Ansari, the owner, will show you around.

 

Gabriela Plump
Indian Designs in the 10th Arrondissement in Paris.

 

It was getting dark, so I dared not continue on. But I came back, again and again, always in daylight. After several visits, the neighborhood became mine.

 

Want your eyebrows threaded for only 7 euros? Your hand hennaed? Try the Centre de Beauté Indien. Dass Ponnoussamy, who owns the shop with his wife, Stella, is full of wisdom about the area. His father, Antoine, opened the first grocery store nearby more than 40 years ago. The florist Hibiscus Fleurs flies in ropes of fresh jasmine packed in ice from the Chennai region. You pin it in your hair and suddenly you exude the sweet smell of fresh jasmine, a purer scent than Chanel No. 5.

 

Noon is the time to witness the midday ceremony at Temple Ganesh, the Hindu Temple on a side street a few blocks north of the main commercial area. Non-Hindus are welcome, and picture-taking is allowed. Leave your shoes at the door and buy a basket of coconut, banana and betel leaf for about 8 euros to make a traditional offering. The ceremony, led by a priest naked to the waist, fills the room with camphor and incense; chants and prayers; offerings of milk, honey, fruits and flowers. On the day of my visit, I was handed a plate of prasad, warm sweet rice, as a token of appreciation.

 

Then comes lunch, starting with a lassi made with mango or rose. Southern Indian cooking features dosas (savory rice-and-black-lentil pancakes) and idlis (steamed rice cakes) instead of the naan bread of the north. Good vegetarian restaurants can be hard to find in Paris, but the neighborhood has two excellent ones. The most recent one is Saravana Bhavan. Part of an international chain, it leaves even India-savvy diners with the impression of having just been to Madras. At nearby Krishna Bhavan, five of us ate well for 46 euros.

 

Gabriela Plump
Cakes line the walls at Canabady Snacks.

 

Instead of ordering dessert, stop in at Canabady Snacks. The shop offers both savories (like the spicy chickpea-flour snacks that looks like orange worms) and brightly colored cakelike desserts. They are cloyingly sweet, but that’s part of the experience. Ask enough questions of the charmingly timid men in the shop and they might pull out folding chairs, offer you samples and make you boiling black tea with milk and sugar.

 

If you’re in the mood for more, head to the Passage Brady several blocks away. A forlorn, dimly lit covered arcade, its floor tiles are broken and many of its shops and restaurants are empty. But it offers a piece of history: it was here that the first Indian businesses opened decades ago. Still going strong is Velan, an inviting one-stop shop for foodstuffs, decorative objects, incense, candles, costume jewelry and ayurvedic beauty products.

 

And in the Joan Miró garden near the Porte d’Italie in the 13th Arrondissement in the south of Paris, off a street called Tagore, there is another surprise: lost in a corner is a bronze bust of the poet and painter himself, pensive as he writes in a notebook.

 

Address Book

 

Le Cachemirien, 13 rue de Tournon; 011-33-1-43-29-93-82. Poonam Chawla 011-33-1-45-05-34-71; 011-33-6-26-01-77-53.
Canabady Snacks, 21 Rue Perdonnet; 011-33-1-46-07-49-55.
Centre de Beauté Indien, 27/33 Rue Philippe de Girard; 011-33-1-46-07-44-67.
Chennai Silks, 57 Rue Louis Blanc; 011-33-1-40-34-72-05.
Hibiscus Fleurs, 2 Rue Perdonnet; 011-33-1-53-26-07-81.
India Designs, 207 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis; 011-33-1-42-09-18-31.
Krishna Bhavan, 21 and 24 Rue Cail; 011-33-1-42-05-78-43.
Mandalas, 12 Rue du Champ de Mars; 011-33-1-47-05-48-53.
Saravana Bhavan, 170 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis; 011-33-1-40-05-01-01.
Temple Ganesh, 17 Rue Pajol; 011-33-1-42-09-50-45.
Velan, 83/87 Passage Brady; 011-33-1-42-46-06-06.
VS Co Cash & Carry, 197 Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis; 011-33-1-40-34-71-65.

 

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