From Ceylon Manohar’s Tamil hit Chinna Mamiye to the Bobby song Na Chahoon Sona Chandi, from spicy chorizo sausages to pork vadavam kozhambu, from everyday furniture like the almirah to the verandah that we take for granted: they are the product of complex and fascinating histories that resulted from India’s long encounter with Europe.
In recent years, however, these histories have been under attack by forces that aim to present a monolithic account of Indian culture. At a time when “majoritarian narratives in South Asia, and claims to cultural exclusivity go hand-in-hand with social exclusion,” academic Ananya Jahanara Kabir and writer Ari Gautier have launched an online effort to hold on to these “disappeared pasts”.
Their Le thinnai kreyol initiative aims to “enable encounters between representatives – artists, intellectuals, entrepreneurs – of disappeared or disappearing pasts, to build solidarities through sharing creativity and cultural heritage”, they said in an email interview.
Le thinnai kreyol, they said, resists the “hegemonic master-narratives of what India must be”.
The foundation for many of these encounters was laid in 1498, when Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama’s arrival in Calicut drew the Indian subcontinent into a burgeoning transoceanic economy. This culminated in 200 years of British rule. But the colonial encounter also resulted in a close interaction between Indians and the French, Portuguese, Dutch and even the Danes. These encounters over centuries strongly influenced and forever changed the way we speak, eat, sing, love and live.
Kabir, a literary scholar, currently teaching at King’s College in London, has done extensive research on creolised cultures – multicultural communities that emerged with the intermingling of natives and Europeans during the colonial era.
Gautier, a Franco-Tamilian from the former French colony of Pondicherry, is a testament to that phenomenon. His novels Carnet Secret de Lakshmi (2017) and Le Thinnai (2018), uphold the creolising confluence of disparate cultures that Le thinnai kreyol aims to celebrate.
The name Le thinnai kreyol exemplifies Kabir and Gautier’s vision. “Le” is the French word for “the”, while “thinnai” is Tamil for a raised verandah-like platform in front of a house for friends, family, travelers and strangers to meet.
Spelling the word “kreyol” with a “k” reflects the “defiant, decolonising power” of the word the way it is used in Western Indian Ocean islands such as Mauritius and Reunion, and is a symbol of “performative resistance”, Kabir and Gautier said.
Since the beginning of June, Gautier, who lives in Oslo, Norway, and Kabir, who is based in Manchester in the United Kingdom, have conducted several Facebook Live discussions with writers, researchers, and musicians.
Kabir and Gautier plan to create a website to host the material gathered through these interactions, which will help “reactivate memory” across what they call an “archipelago of fragments”.
The “fragments”, they say, refer to “enclaves and port cities within India where colonial modernity and mercantile activity ensured centuries of astonishing cultural interchange” as well as “islands and coastal enclaves in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, and Pacific, and European ports and metropolises”.
While cities like Mumbai are readily recognised as “cosmopolitan”, others like Chennai and Kolkata don’t attract the label, they said. Meanwhile, the similarities between places, “recognised as inheritors of Portuguese, French, and Dutch presence in India” like Goa, Pondicherry, Cochin, and Bengal’s towns along the Hooghly, have gone unnoticed.
For both Kabir and Gautier, who have had “displaced childhoods”, a project like Le thinnai kreyol seemed most natural.
Gautier was born in Madagascar, and moved to Pondicherry as a child. At 16, he left for France, returned years later to South Asia, and in 2005, moved to Norway. Kolkata-born Kabir, spent her early years in Nagpur and Hyderabad, before moving back to her hometown. She later studied and taught in the United Kingdom.
For these global citizens, creolisation binds cultures that are today considered disconnected in a world politically transformed by vociferous nativist currents of anti-globalisation and anti-multiculturalism.
So far through Le thinnai kreyol, Kabir and Gautier have had discussions with author Madison Moore, whose 2018 book Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric investigates the politics behind so-called eccentric style and fashion, French poet Carpanin Marimoutou born in Reunion island, and Gladys Francis whose areas of interest include French/Francophone studies and African-American cultures.
A recent Le thinnai kreyol “kutcheri” session – signalling the multiculturalism at play with the use of the Urdu word in the context of Carnatic music assemblies – involved a musical collaboration between Indo-French percussionist Prabhu Edouard and Goan singer Sonia Shirsat who has popularised fado for a new generation.
At the moment, Le thinnai kreyol is limited to cross-continental Facebook Live conversations. At some point, Kabir and Gautier said, Le thinnai kreyol will manifest itself outside the confines of the internet. “When lockdown is eased, we may assume some physical form, but in this matter, we follow the kreyol philosophy of improvisation,” they said. “The internet’s reach will continue to power us.”