The Indo-French Connection

March 2, 2024

French and Indian entrepreneurs have been collaborating in the world of crafts and artisanship for several decades – even centuries - now. What first comes to mind are the French colonial interfaces in Pondicherry and Chandanagore or even the one-of-its kind forested spiritual city of Auroville, as the starting points for such initiatives.

A closer reading reveals a much more complex story. Where Indian made colours and dyeing techniques in the 16th century had become so popular in France that they spawned a set of imitators trying to match the much loved shades, hues and textures. Initially, this competition from India spurred a process of control of these workshops – and even prohibition of Indian-style manufacturing centres in France – only to eventually encourage the growth of industrialization, thus changing the game of production itself. The chemical industry emerged in France as a modern scientific endeavour, thanks to their attempts to match the output that emerged from traditional skills in India. Similarly, on a global scale, the wildly successful Indian textile industry in the 16th and 17th centuries, had to be systematically dismantled and destroyed by British colonial authorities to ensure the imposition of its industrial mode of production for textiles.  

The transition from labour based manufacture to machine based production was not a smooth, inevitable evolution. It actually involved a rigorous negotiation of local techniques everywhere – in Europe and in India. Industrial factories did not just spew out products on a large scale to reduce prices and render handmade goods redundant  – but had to be subsidised through protectionist measures, and additional support to the cost of energy and technology. While colonial governments, big corporations and intellectual torch-bearers of the industrial revolution were waving flags of progress and technology, the actual people involved in local production and trading, artisans, practitioners and small scale entrepreneurs knew the story was not yet over. Conversations, exchanges and dialogues continued. Whether at the level of princely states in India with French practitioners and entrepreneurs, (like that of the royal Holkars of Indore) or between small scale manufacturers and traders in both places.

Such exchanges happened through a thin wall marking one degree of separation from British colonial practices. The best of these had little to do with colonial legacies or a blind faith in large scale technology, but more with passion and love for crafts and techniques of quality focused production. Today, pioneers such as Jean Francois Lesage in the field of embroidery continue to build on similar exchanges. They show a deep empathy with the distinct traditions of artisanship and crafts that have survived in India and France to create organic partnerships with a Franco-Indian or (Indo-French if you will) twist. Old Europe had an institutional foundation for its crafts and artisanal practices – centered around guilds. In India these were connected to community and caste histories. These foundations had both positive and negative dimensions – but neither of them was so extreme, that they could not be reinvented.

The spirit of guilds continues to exist in France. We can see it in its strong connections to ‘terroir’, the soil from where a craft and artefact grows. This makes for products imprinted by geographical affinities and traditional practices. Despite the strong forces of globalization and corporate financial arrangements, many of these have managed to survive, thanks to a deep commitment to the practice of craftsmanship by the luxury industry and the state. In India, thanks to Gandhi’s sharp focus on artisanship as a form of anti-colonial strategy, there was a fair amount of state support for handicrafts during the decades after independence. But the effort was often weighed down by caste and community histories. If only Gandhi’s hand-made vision had merged into Ambedkar’s passion for the transformation of caste-ridden social structures! Perhaps it would have been a different story.

In the case of the brewing of alcohol (also a home-based craft in many parts of the world) India’s social history had an even more negative story. Unlike the European continent, (like when the Portuguese presence in Goa did not discourage local brews) the British Empire managed to not only destroy local traditions of making alcohol but infused a puritanism around drinking that reinforced upper-caste disdain for cultures that did enjoy alcohol. This ironically produced a robust liquor industry. Indians are one of the world's largest consumers of English spirits like whisky and rum while most of them don’t know any local spirit. No wonder it is very challenging for a drink such as mahua to evolve into a modern industry managed by local people.

It is in this context that we should speak about the value of new collaborative practices that respect and strengthen each other. We have our own pride in prefiguring Indo-French collaborations but don’t hold any prejudice against other ongoing and possible partnerships. Any move like this can only produce more and more artefacts and products to help local practices everywhere. Considering that France is so protective of local identities as is evident in their history of product identities and places – we sincerely hope that in India too – such local pride around local products not only protects their identity but also the communities that are connected to them.

We believe it is possible to collaborate across the globe and strengthen local initiatives at the same time. MAH – a humble child of a long history of Indo-French collaborations – is a proud and classy tribute to Mahua. It is an attempt to make visible a drink that belongs to the communities connected to India’s forests. Making it with the experience of the skills and proficiency of the Cognac region is the French side of this collaboration. It is an important part of the process to make it known around the world.

We eventually hope to unfold a process in which the forests of India and the people who are connected to them – become the main global players in the coming years and decades.  Towards this, as we sell MAH – we continue to work actively with entrepreneurs and local communities to make mahua locally as well. The partnership has just started. MAH has entered the market. The Indo-French friendship will endure forever. And so will mahua and the communities attached to it.  

Working together in Cognac

Thumbnail pic: Indian fabric factory of Mrs. Gros Davillier Roman & Cie in Wesserling (on the sunset side): lithograph by G. Engelmann, from the Manufactures du Haut-Rhin series, produced between 1822 and 1825; drawing by J. Mieg (Mulhouse Fabric Printing Museum)

Thumbnail Image Source, Wikimedia Commons

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