An online initiative aims to map India’s fading creole past, and present
Creole typically indicates a culture resulting from encounters between various European and non-European cultures. So when you think creole you think of islands in the Caribbean or the Indian Ocean — places where people stopped over to trade, and sometimes settle. The old oceanic trade routes too were important vectors of this process.
You don’t think of India as creole, and yet the crumb-fried savouries, wooden window shutters, saris-blouse-petticoat combination — are all technically creolised products, an unpredictable mix of elements from different cultural influences that coalesced to create a new culture at a time when those other cultures were dominant political and / or economic forces in the region.
It’s these connections and fading histories that the literary scholar Ananya Jahanara Kabir, 50 and Ari Gautier, 55, a Franco-Tamilian writer from Pondicherry, are highlighting through an online project called Le Thinnai Kreyol. Thinnai is Tamil for a kind of veranda, typically a gathering place for family and community.
“We typically tend to think of the British influence on our culture, but there were so many other European powers in India, contributing to creolisation — the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese,” says Kabir, who is currently teaching literature at King’s College, London.
Ananya’s search for literary texts about French India drew her to Le Thinnai, a historical novel about Pondicherry, written in French, by Gautier in 2018. In March, the two, who had already met virtually and found they had a lot to talk about and share, they decided to create a virtual platform where others could join in too.
In May, Le Thinnai Kreyol was launched on Facebook. “We like to think of Thinnai Kreyol as an archipelago of fragments connecting cultures and places often considered disconnected,” says Kabir.
On the page and in their live events, the duo and their guest speakers discuss the food, architecture, rituals, clothes, music, dance, books and languages in India that could be said to bear elements of creolisation. One of the first posts on Facebook, for instance, was a photograph of the shuttered windows called jannal in Tamil and janala in Bangla, derived from the Portuguese janela. From West Africa to Australia to the Caribbean and India, this unique shutter is creolised using local wood and architectural frames, yet is recognisable as variations of the same European pattern.
Guest speakers include artists, intellectuals, entrepreneurs and culture and heritage enthusiasts. “It’s like a good dinner party, one where the guests have been chosen very carefully,” says Kabir.
For instance, Sonia Shirsat, a fado singer, (popular music from Portugal usually sung at bars and restaurants) from Goa, was paired with Prabhu Edouard, a percussionist based in Paris, to highlight the rarely appreciated similarities between Goa and Pondicherry as remnants of Portuguese and French India respectively.
The live meets, free and open to all, typically feature performances and cooking demonstrations. Sessions are conducted in a mix of French and English, with a little Tamil and Bangla words and phrases thrown in. “Being multi-lingual lovers of wordplay, we might introduce at will words from Norwegian, Spanish, and Portuguese, but we always explain these through our conversation,” says Gautier.
There have been six curated events so far, in addition to a weekly Sunday adda where Kabir and Gautier chat about different aspects of creolisation.
The aim of the project, though, is to explore creole elements not just as an aspect of history, but through what the two see as the philosophy that spawned them — that of resistance. “Even the unequal power relations, violence and colonialism, did not kill culture,” says Kabir. “Rather, creolised music, dance, food, clothes, architecture and language emerged. Creolised cultural forms resist power and hegemony, resist standardisation.”
In today’s context, it’s important to remember that the idea of India is based on this resistance to “hegemonic master-narratives of what ‘India’ must be,” Kabir adds. “We believe people from all over India today want to rediscover how they are connected to other stories, not corralled in some watertight box.”
There is a plan to one day take the project offline. “In the meanwhile,” Kabir says, “we are benefiting from a collective resourcefulness at a time when everyone is marooned in their homes and we truly are in some sense an archipelago of fragments.”