Cross Maidan in Churchgate got a curious new addition last week, right behind the large steel charkha that occupies the centre of the park. Signboards at the entrance advertise the maze of illuminated white hedges simply as The Experience — A Digital Journey With France. The words become self-explanatory the moment you walk in.
“This is what walking down a street in Paris it supposed to be like,” explains a volunteer at Bonjour India, a four-month multi-city festival organised by the Alliance Francaise in Mumbai. The exhibit was hosted at India Gate in Delhi before coming to Mumbai and will next travel to Kolkata for the book fair next month. It opened at Cross Maidan on December 15 and will stay until Tuesday.
“The idea was to conduct the exhibition in a public space where a bulk of the population feels comfortable walking in,” says Amritha Ballal, a founding partner at the Delhi-based architecture firm Space Matters, which designed The Experience.
Ballal adds that the focus was to retain a playful setting inside the space given the abundance of information on display. “Lots of information can be intimidating. When people pass through the whole thing, the idea is to let them take it forward from there,” she says.
Inside, the exhibit is divided into three pavilions, each taking visitors through collaborations between India and France in creative fields, technology and softer cultural and educational ties.
The exhibit features popular books in French translated in several Indian languages, and vice versa, including editions of Asterix and Obelix. Twin screens play a short video biographies of the French Indologist and Sangeet Natak Akademi winner Alain Danielou, who was also a close friend of Rabindranath Tagore.
In the innovation pavilion, the panels running through the walls depict the influence of French architecture in the making of modern Indian cities, namely, Chandigarh, Pondicherry, and Chandernagore in West Bengal, while two street plans compare the similarity between the structures of the central Delhi and centra Paris. Special mention is made of the Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, also known as Le Corbusier, who designed Chandigarh.
The rest of the space is taken up by videos of the Kochi Metro, funded by the Agence Francaise de Developpement. However, the main draw is a booth about co-operations between space agencies of the two countries and partnership between scientists Vikram Sarabhai and Jacques Blamont.
Visitors read all of this material standing in front of a reflective screen where they are suddenly surrounded by rotating planets, and satellites the two countries have launched together, floating past.
The last pavilion takes visitors on a quick tour of France through it cuisine and language, with rotating wall-mounted panels printed with everyday French words and phrases printed on one side and a visual representation on the other side. Right next to it, another screen features a map of France, where a touch takes you through popular foods typical to a particular region. “So, if you like a particular food item, the screen also breaks down the recipe,” said another volunteer.
A video of Chalo Paris, a mobile application recently launched by the Indian and French governments aimed at helping Indian tourists navigate through the capital city, dominates another end of the pavilion. Even as visitors find their way out, a box of mirrors holds up the exiting queue. “We wanted to end with a completely immersive and visual experience,” says Ballal.
The multimedia piece that plays through the next few minutes ropes in the most exciting names in Indian and French music and visual art. Indo-European digital art collective Mossquito Massala, which curated the final installation, brought together twenty different artists to create a mesmerising experience. Ballal added that the intention with the final piece was to create a screen reflective from the top and bottom. “The space complements the movie and vice versa,” she says. A volunteer says the installation was the one area drawing the most selfies and boomerang videos for Instagram.