REN­DEZVOUS WITH OLAF VAN CLEEF

He is French, but Olaf Van Cleef’s love for In­dia re­flects in his art­work. So­ci­ety catches up with this artist and jew­eller ex­traor­di­naire and gets a de­light­ful ac­count of his In­dian es­capades

Society - - CONTENTS - By Kakoli Pod­dar

The French­man Olaf Van Cleef is madly in love with In­dia and he tells us why in an in­trigu­ing artsy chat

Cartier’s jew­eller for In­dia, Olaf Van Cleef, com­bines his pas­sion for In­dia and In­dian spir­i­tu­al­ity into fine art­work. His artis­tic en­deav­ours also blend his yen for jew­ellery, the re­sult be­ing ex­quis­ite paint­ings in­tri­cately em­bel­lished with Swarovski crys­tals, se­quins and tiny choco­late foil wrap­pers. Each paint­ing can be termed a jewel in it­self. Hav­ing been a coun­sel­lor to Cartier on high-end jew­ellery for four decades, Olaf avers that his artis­tic en­deav­our is “in­spired by the vi­brant colours, the sights, sounds, smells and cul­tures of In­dia”. His art exhibition at Kolkata’s Taj Ben­gal some­time back, was tes­ti­mony to that fact. Olaf is the scion of the fa­mous aris­to­cratic Van Cleef dy­nasty, known to ex­port cheese from Paris to the Nether­lands and were also jew­ellers to the Czars of Rus­sia. Though a Dutch by ori­gin, Olaf is based in Paris. But the lure of In­dia en­tices him to visit the coun­try again and again. As the Cartier con­sul­tant, he is a hot favourite of In­dia’s aris­to­crats and roy­als. He shares se­crets and sto­ries with the Ma­hara­jas and Ma­ha­ra­nis and is al­ways asked to take a look at their pre­cious jew­els and ad­vise them on the jew­ellery. Olaf trans­forms his in­som­niac hours into a de­light of colours. It is in the soli­tude of night and the early dawn that he finds so­lace in paint­ing. “I paint from 2am to 7am, of­ten lis­ten­ing to Mozart at that time. I have my break­fast at 2am and get on with my paint­ing,” he tells us. From then, it is work as usual. He dons his busi­ness suit ad­vis­ing the rich and the fa­mous on jew­ellery trends and de­sign. When does he sleep? We ask. He smiles and says that he catches up with some sleep from 9pm to 2am. His larger paint­ings could take some 400 hours to com­plete, while the smaller ones can be com­pleted in 150 hours. “I can spend three hours work­ing in just two cm squared pa­per,” he re­veals. In his paint­ings, one sees art-deco in­flu­ence, a hint of Mughal minia­ture art, Tan­jore paint­ings and In­dian cal­en­dar art de­pict­ing gods and god­desses. The themes are mytho­log­i­cal with scenes from the In­dian epics Ra­mayana and Ma­hab­harata, gods and god­desses, with Kr­ishna be­ing his special favourite and also other themes of In­dia–a boy read­ing the Qu­ran in front of a mosque, Vivekananda, Mughal em­peror, a scene from a royal

court. In­dian themes are finely blended with Western im­agery. For ex­am­ple, Vishnu ris­ing from a bed of let­tuce leaves or a por­trait of Ram and Sita in the back­ground of a typ­i­cal Euro­pean cas­tle. There­after, he moved to Bud­dhist and Ti­betan deities us­ing thangkas as his inspiration. Olaf’s tryst with paint­ing be­gan on a trip to Aus­tria with his god­mother Alice—his fa­ther’s girl­friend—who brought him up. The vi­va­cious Alice filled up his life as a moth­er­less child. “The great­est gift from my mother Alice is the box of colours she thrust into my hand, al­low­ing me to ex­per­i­ment with myr­iad colours and cre­ate an av­enue to put my soul on can­vas.” Olaf then plunged into paint­ing and started recre­at­ing his own world. In this world, he was the king. He could trans­form dark­ness to dawn with the magic touch of his brush. Later, he dis­con­tin­ued his child­hood hobby, only to take it up again, many years later, in 2002. Speak­ing in his heav­ily French-ac­cented fal­ter­ing English, he says, “My guide­line, both for my jew­ellery and paint­ings, is that less is more.” Olaf prefers de­sign­ing del­i­cate jew­ellery as “small can be both chic and ex­pen­sive and large can be cheap. You can­not have di­a­mond and emer­ald and lapis lazuli and ev­ery­thing in one piece of jew­ellery. Like you don’t put but­ter, mar­malade and cream…all of it on your bread! Of course, if some­one wants a large piece of jew­ellery, I have to do it.” Olaf also prefers plat­inum or white gold to the shin­ing yel­low metal and tries to per­suade his clients to go in for the sub­tle look. He went to Pondicherry be­cause of his French con­nec­tions and there, he be­came a big fan and fol­lower of the Holy Mother at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. He is also in­spired by the teach­ings of Sri Aurobindo. When Olaf was just fif­teen, he first vis­ited In­dia with his grand­mother. “I re­mem­ber the parrot my grand­mother bought from Mumbai’s Craw­ford Mar­ket. When we left, she re­leased the parrot. Af­ter she died, I for­got In­dia. But when I was 25—like many other young Western­ers—I came to Goa with friends,” he re­counts. But while the rest were busy smok­ing hashish, Olaf be­gan dis­cov­er­ing the real In­dia. “I have trav­elled all over In­dia…been to Jhansi and learnt the tale of Rani of Jhansi, have gone to the ele­phant mar­ket in Patna, be­sides vis­it­ing Hy­der­abad, Kot­tayam, Hampi, Kutch, Kochi and Chennai. But I still haven’t seen much of In­dia. I have a lot to learn about the coun­try and its people be­cause In­dia is like a con­ti­nent on its own,” he feels. Olaf has also pub­lished a trav­el­ogue on In­dia, ti­tled From Dar­jeel­ing to Pondicherry. On his Cartier con­nec­tion and the In­dian de­signs he has done for the jew­ellery ma­jor, he says that in 1985, when Cartier dis­cov­ered his pas­sion for In­dia, it ap­proached him to look at the pos­si­bil­i­ties in this emerg­ing mar­ket. He re­calls a con­fer­ence with stu­dents at St Xavier’s Col­lege in Mumbai, where he talked about Cartier. “At that point, one young man said, ‘Mr Olaf, you are very in­ter­est­ing but I have a lot of prob­lems with Cartier. I am veg­e­tar­ian, so I don’t want the face of a tiger on the neck of my wife. Your col­lec­tion of bam­boo de­signs is very nice but it also sym­bol­ises the house of the poor. Also, your neck­lace with the ele­phant is fine but the nose is not right. Ele­phant for us is also Ganesh, the god.’ All this re­ally opened my eyes to the de­tails that have to be kept in mind while de­sign­ing jew­ellery for In­di­ans. The young man gave me a shock be­cause he gave the mes­sage that what you do is good for Amer­i­cans or the French, but not for us. What will you do for us?” Olaf’s next task was to hold an au­dio-vis­ual show of Cartier jew­ellery for the ‘ smart people’, show them im­ages of watches, neck­laces, earrings, etc and “keenly ob­serve their ex­pres­sions... what they liked and what they didn’t”. “So many tourists come to In­dia and barge into shops and take home me­men­tos. They want to buy lots of things from In­dia be­cause they are not ex­pen­sive. But very few people want to give to In­dia. That’s a very dif­fi­cult thing to do, but I want to do it,” he says pas­sion­ately.

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