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Garbage to gold!

The sleepy town of Chandernagore with its gradually vanishing French connection is still cherished by some Europeans as they have a romantic image of the settlement known for its once-beautiful strand and streets lined with gracious mansions. The mansions are now crumbling and its last French citizen died in 1952.

Olaf Van Cleef, the Cartier biggie who makes his annual trips to the city and drops by Chandernagore whenever he gets a chance, had decided to organise a private viewing of his art in that town on February 17. Van Cleef, who is of Dutch descent but whose family has lived in Paris for generations, does not visit India as an ambassador of Cartier alone any longer. He comes here to exhibit his detailed paintings of Hindu deities studded with Swarovski stones and semi-precious stones which are ideal for private Hindu shrines. Van Cleef promotes little-known Indian artists with the money he makes by selling these works.

Van Cleef says he paints abstract works, too, but decided to show the Hindu deities because they would be easier for children to grasp, and his target audience was mainly schoolchildren. It is his way of showing his gratitude to the country that has given him so much, he exclaims. He held his show at the Chandernagore French Institute on the strand, a heritage structure which was constructed in the first half of the 19th century.

Neline and Ujjal Mondal of the Chandernagore-based Human and Heritage Charitable Trust and staff of the hotel where Van Cleef stays whenever he is in town helped him mount the exhibition. The children of two schools — St. Antony’s School and St. Josephs Convent School —were invited, and the little ones started trooping in at 1pm.

His paintings were laid out in neat rows on long tables in the vast hall of the institute, and the children filed past them, stopping whenever something interesting caught their eye. He demonstrated how he creates those intricate designs on the paintings, which have a light wash of delicate colours on their surface. Thereafter, wielding a micro-tipped felt pen, he fills in the fantastic details, more often than not, painting all night long.

Van Cleef explained how along with the expensive crystals he uses bits and pieces of shiny paper used to wrap chocolates as well. The children were fascinated. A little girl remarked: “So sir, my garbage is your gold.” The schoolchildren were there till 2.30 pm.

Thereafter, it was the turn of the adults. A group of about seven people had driven down from Calcutta. Some of them were “friends” he had met on Facebook, where Van Cleef posts his paintings every now and then. Local people, who were enthusiastic, also dropped by. The exhibition was on till 4 pm. Van Cleef was so pleased with the reaction that he has decided to repeat the performance next year. Perhaps at the eponymous church in Serampore as well.