Director of Alliance Française de Chittagong (AFC) Dr. Samuel Berthet is a man of culture. Berthet's childhood memories conjure up the diverse cultural atmosphere circling his scenic school Ecole du Lac (Pond) at Grenoble, France.
"My school was an experimental one in a socially and culturally mixed area where we would learn in a fun atmosphere. We didn't have any barriers. We'd go boating or take on in many imaginative activities including music and drama. I had many friends from different regions including North Africa, Asia and South America," recalls Berthet.
"Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore visited France six times. In 1930 the bard exhibited his paintings at Gallery Pigalle for the first time ever. At that time everyone knew Tagore in France. My grandparents would read his books and their eyes would sparkle for decades to come whenever they heard his name," says Berthet.
A Masters in History (South Asia) from Delhi University in 1995-96, Berthet started his PhD under Professor Jacques Weber of Nantes, a French university, in 1997.
Berthet discovered a treasure trove of hundreds of photographs, taken by French musicologist and indologist Alain Daniélou at Shantiniketan, from 1932 to 1940, while digging through the late photographer's archives at his house in Rome, Italy. In 1932, Danielou and Burnier drove through Afghanistan and on to India on a trail of discovery. Tagore first authorised Alain Daniélou to translate his songs and write suitable arrangements for western orchestra. "Apart from photography, the archive centre in Zagarolo, near Rome, also has paintings, music notations, and a huge number of published and unpublished writings, and translations by Alain Daniélou," says Berthet
"Tagore, the Universal Message", was a unique exhibition at AFC, Alliance Francaise de Dhaka, ICCR Delhi, Tagore Centre in Kolkata and Shantiniketan, organised in association with the French Embassy and the Harsharan Foundation, showcasing a selection of photographs of Rabindranath Tagore and Shantiniketan that were believed to be lost, but came to light in August 2010, when Berthet rediscovered them in the Alain Daniélou and Raymond Burnier Photo Collection (DBPC), just a few months before Tagore's 150th birth anniversary.
"Along with the exhibition of those rare images, conferences and regular musical soirees were also held at the exhibition venues. One of the main points of the event was to emphasise Tagore's role as a pioneer of the concept of intangible heritage which looks at protecting craftsmen, rural artistes and other non-commercial cultural legacies around the world," adds Berthet.
"I wanted to translate Tagore's aim of constructing the university as a proactive move to promote cultural dialogue across the social and cultural layers and to offer a space for creativity in close connection with nature and free from the growing commercial and industrial pressure," Berthet goes on.
Berthet, who did part of his PhD with the dissertation title: "History of Indo French Cultural Relations between 1870-1962", at Shantiniketan in 1999-2000, is still under the spell of Tagore. He believes that these rare photos can be a potential subject for his research, and asserts that they will certainly leave a lasting impression of Shantiniketan on those who have seen the exhibition.
"I first came to the subcontinent in 1995 for my studies with no preconception about it. And in 1999, when I was appointed as a lecturer in Visva Bharati, the idyllic beauty of rural life mesmerised me; the intellectual and artistic ambience of Shantiniketan moved my soul so greatly that I wanted to stay there forever," says Berthet.
During his stay at Shantiniketan, Berthet would teach French and learn Bengali under a Visva Bharati University teacher Nandadulal De who would translate (French-Bengali and Bengali-French) there. Berthet would also translate with him.
"That one year in Shantiniketan was the best time of my life. While riding my bicycle to my friend's residence, I would watch the evening beauty of glow-worms. Many of my friends from Shantiniketan have now become teachers at Visva Bharati University or prominent artists, retaining their sense of freedom, originality and initial generosity. I always recall them as my family members and pay visits to them every now and then," says Berthet.
After completing his PhD in 2002, Berthet taught history at the French Department of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. At that time he wrote many articles and conducted research on the maritime history of South Asia, tribal cultures and Tagore.
Berthet has his own perspective of Shantiniketan. He regards the place as an artistic assembly of Bauls, urban artistes, classical artistes, academics and many more.
"So far as I know, no other university had such a tribal component and cross-cultural assimilation during the colonial period. Tagore's experiment greatly influenced educational experimentation worldwide," asserts Berthet.
Berthet envisages Tagore as a free-minded person. Emphasising Tagore's idea of "Freedom of Mind", the enlightened Tagore enthusiast cites an excerpt:
"Tagore, like Max Jacob (a painter), was always ready to laugh at his fine pronouncements a moment after he had spoken them. Another man I would call a 'Free Spirit' was Nicolas Nabokov. But whenever people, instead of simply being themselves, wish to be labelled as Christians, Muslims, Communists, Democrats, Fascists or Socialists, I feel as though their minds were dead and see no point in trying to establish contact." [From Alain Danielou's book titled "The way to the Labyrinth: Memories of East and West".]
"There goes a West African maxim 'Too serious is not serious'. Sense of humour and wit is important in a person's life. Tagore felt 'free spirit in movement' and emphasised on endless learning. He would play and have fun with children to help their creative faculties flourish," asserts Berthet.
The port city (Chittagong) has teemed with various vibrant cultural programmes and activities after Berthet joined AFC as director in September, 2008. Prior to that Berthet with several other European and South Asian university teachers made a documentary film on "Heritage and Maritime History" in Chittagong in 2006.
Berthet, a connoisseur of Hindustani classical music, is an ardent fan of Ustad F. Wasifuddin Dagar of the Dagarvani. The connoisseur arranged a solo classical musical soiree featuring a performance by the Ustad at AFC, Chittagong. Paris based international mime maestro Partha Pratim Majumder conducted a workshop there. Bibi Russell inaugurated the first "Slow Food Festival" of Bangladesh jointly organised with the AFC Biodiversity Club.
"During my tenure, Professor Alak Roy, a sculptor of international repute, exhibited his arts, noted singer Shila Momen performed in a Tagore concert, Yasmin Kabir and Renuka George screened their films and documentary on Wasifuddin Dagar at AFC. Alexandre Jurain, an amazing exponent of classical esraj, also performed for his first public appearance. I feel extremely sad that I could not do anything with filmmaker Tareque Masud, who I already admired before coming to Bangladesh," says Berthet.
"We organised the first solo exhibition of internationally famed Bangladeshi photographer Shoeb Faruquee, as well as by Didarul Alam Chowdhury and Nazir Uddin Mahmud at the AFC gallery," says Berthet.
AFC for the first time in Bangladesh invited Shantiniketan artists of international repute, who performed with Binoy Banshi and his son Babul Jaldas (dhol artistes) of Chittagong in Milonmela. The event jointly featured exquisite Baul singers, Chhau and Gotipua dancers and Kalaripyattu, a martial art of Kerala. French Kathak dancer and choreographer Isabella Anna also performed at AFC twice.
Maybe culture of the subcontinent, especially the culture of undivided Bengal that was solely nourished by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, has an appeal that is universal, be it for Tagore exponent Berthet or his British friend William Radice.