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French shutterbug with focus on India

“When you don’t know a country, you need clichés to identify it. And if the country in question is India, the clichés are particularly …well, clichéd.” Which is why perhaps Oliver Gazal had to take so much care in treating his subjects “just as they were, minus the exoticism”. His subjects, all 40 of them, will be on view at Oxford Bookstore from Wednesday.

Gazal is in town for an exhibition of ‘Faces of Indian literature’, organised by Alliance Francaise. Amit Chaudhuri to Shashi Tharoor, Sunil Gangopadhyay to Sashi Deshpande — everyone has been ‘framed’ by the 31-year-old Frenchman, on the occasion of Belles Etrangeres, a literary event across France organised by the French ministry of culture, with India as the focus in 2002. “The object of the event is to introduce foreign literature to French readers. Ever since The God of Small Things, Indian literature is really rising up the popularity charts,” he explained, while munching on a sandwich, hours after touchdown at Dum Dum.

Gazal is no étranger (stranger) to Calcutta. “I try to include the city on every India trip,” he smiles, while supervising the placement of the photographs. Pointing at a picture of a College Street bookshop, he says: “Everything is in clusters here— bookshops, students, jewellers...”

With his Hasselblad 503cx slung over his shoulder, Gazal has criss-crossed the country five times, since 1995. In a bid to mix business and pleasure, he has planned two other India projects — death and religion, and traditional folk art. The first has taken him to Varanasi, where he has camped for days. “The city is full of superlatives. People washing and worshipping, burning bodies and playing cards... life and death are so indistinguishably together,” he says, eyes wide with wonder. The one place which has stayed on in his mind is a small ashram lost in the middle of the ‘sacred city’. “The priests there worship Kabir through songs. People of all religions are welcome. In today’s India, this is amazing.” Another enduring memory is of a“400-year-old manuscript” he saw there, wrapped in newspapers. “Shouldn’t that be in the National Library'” he asks.

Gazal is looking forward to his Calcutta stay. “The last time I was here in August 2000, it was flooded and I had to cancel a trip to Santiniketan. I also wanted to meet patuas in the districts. But there was some local election and I was told not to travel. I did manage to click the authors, though,” the man from Bordeaux signs off.

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