Karine Pelade- A portrait.
There is a feeling among those who have been living in Pondicherry for several decades that the
town has lost its French character. It is true that ever since the French officially left Pondicherry
there has been a gradual Indianisation of many aspects of life in this old corner of French India.
We don’t any more see signboards in French and don’t hear French being spoken at street corners.
But what most people haven’t noticed is that there is a new wave of French culture, particularly the
French language, which is returning to Pondicherry.
After 1954 the French who came to live in Pondicherry were either attached to one of the several
French institutions such as the Consulate, the Lycée Français, the Institut Français or other such
organisations or if it wasn’t for professional reasons then it was for being a part of the Sri Aurobindo
Ashram or Auroville. But now more and more young French men and women are here because they
like living here, with no direct connection to any of the educational or cultural centres of the French
government or to the Ashram. Most of them are running businesses and they cater to not only the
large number of French tourists but also to the wealthy Indian tourists who are here looking for that
French touch. By their presence they have brought back the French language and the French way of
life to Pondicherry.
One such resident of Pondicherry is Karine Pelade. She runs an art gallery on Rue du Bazar St.
Laurent, only a few steps from the Beach Road. Her story is an unusual one and shows how places
attract people and how destinies fulfil themselves. She was a practising lawyer for 13 years in Paris
and now she is selling paintings in her gallery in Pondicherry. How did that happen?
From her early childhood the name Pondicherry conjured up images of an exotic land in Karine’s
mind and since then she had a strong wish to go there. In 2009 her dream came true when arrived in
that town in order to participate in a dance workshop in Aurovlle. She was already looking for ways
to bring into her life the creative and artistic activities towards which she had a natural inclination.
Although she spent a week in Auroville during that first visit, she also spent a couple of days before
and after that in Pondicherry and enjoyed being in that ambiance of a quiet town by the sea. There
was something in the air, a certain charm, which she deeply appreciated. In fact she felt totally at
For the next six years she came every year and spent quality time, sometimes a month sometimes
three, to reflect and write, sometimes sitting in a church, sometimes walking through the leafy
streets of the White Town. Finally, she took the step to move to Pondicherry and decided to open to
an art gallery. One might imagine that this was just a fancy decision but in fact Karine has a strong
connection to art as her mother was an art teacher and an artist. “I grew up with the smells of paints
and linseed oil,” she said. She also has many friends who are artists, so discussions on art and visits
to exhibitions have long been a part of her life.
Sitting in her smart gallery Karine says that hers is among the rare galleries in India which doesn’t
make the artists pay for exhibiting their work. “I take a percentage from the sale,” she explains. “In
this way the artists don’t lose money if they don’t sell anything. But it means that I have to make
that extra effort to ensure that the paintings are sold so that I can earn something.”
Before opening her gallery she had been told by those who have already been in this business that
Pondicherry is not a place where people spend money on art even though there are a lot of people
who appreciate art. So Karine knows that she has to use all her skills to make contacts with a large
range of artists, French as well as Indian, and create a clientele base. She did not find it hard to start
a business in India but it is the slow and complicated government administrative procedures that she
finds tedious and time-consuming.
“It is the mixture of two cultures, the Tamil culture and the French culture, that I find most
interesting here. And in many ways it is reminiscent of Louisiana, where I spent some time too, in
connection with my law degree” says Karine. Added to the melting pot of cultures there is also the
spiritual atmosphere which is subtly present in Pondicherry, and this brings a deeper satisfaction to
Karine finds that the French culture and language are very much alive in Pondicherry. She has many
friends who are either expatriates or French nationals of Indian origin who have come back to
Pondicherry after living in France for some years. Surprisingly, many young men and women from
North India who are in Pondicherry to learn French at the Alliance Française, sometimes drop in at
her gallery and want to simply have a conversation in French with her. Their aim is to work in the
tourism industry, mostly in Rajasthan or Delhi, but they also want to acquire a fluency in the
language for their own personal development.
Young and dynamic French nationals like Karine, who have chosen to live here out of a love for the
special qualities of life in Pondicherry, are recreating a French milieu and bringing back the musical
intonations of the French language.