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Indians Under Spotlight- 4 Exceptional Women

Presenting a portrait of four women- two Indian and two French, who have carved their own paths at the cross-roads of Indo-French culture.


Poonam Chawla

Poonam Chawla

Poonam Chawla

A French honours graduate from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, Poonam Chawla came to France more than 20 years ago. Working originally as a translator, she raised her two children and, single handed, managed to succeed in her professional life.

In Paris, she set up tours of the "Little India" area for clients who wanted to discover the "Indian quartier" of Paris with its grocery stores, clothing shops, jewellery boutiques, Ganesha Temple and Indian restaurants. These walking tours, though very successful, appear to have triggered off a rare disease called Dystonia (aka writer's or musician's cramp) which causes those afflicted with the disease to have limited motor activities in the affected area(s). Unfortunately, Poonam’s disease progressed and eventually she was declared 'handicapped'. As this is a very rare medical case, she currently participates in a research program at the eminent Hopital Pitié Salpetriere in Paris.

With walking now severely limited, Poonam has been obliged to end her "Little India tours. Refusing to be limited in her spirit, she has started giving personalized cooking classes in her own kitchen, suiting the needs of clients for authentic,practical and simple cooking by 'demystifying Indian cuisine'. Poonam's cooking classes are also available through Wonderbox, Happytime/box, Reves en cadeau, Thematic Cadeau, Coolcadeau, Daokato, 2LO gift cards. A leisure time poet, Poonam has written two books, 'A Gift of Words' and 'Chroniques de la vie Indienne'. She also shares Indian recipes through her blog. Along with her family, her association, ChalIndia, is her raison d'être. Amidst all this, Poonam in addition devotes her time to helping others through participation in charity work with SOS Charity book sales and a SOS listening help line. Poonam also maintains her website Chal India. Poonam is an inspiration to women who, despite all odds, are struggling to make it on their own. "Chapeau" Poonam!



Brigitte Chataignier

Brigitte Chataignier in Ganga © Richard Volante

Brigitte Chataignier

Brigitte Chataignier is a classical and contemporary French dancer. Her tryst with India came when she went there for Mohini Attam dance training in Kerala from 1987 to 1993 with Kalamandalam Leelamma and Kalamandalam Kshemvathy- two exceptional Mohini Attam exponents. Brigitte complemented her training in dance with Carnatic vocals, feminine roles in Kathakali dance and basics of Kalaripayyat- the martial arts of Kerala. On her artistic path in India, she received grants from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Indo-French Exchange Programm (ICCR) and from the Foreign Ministry. Brigitte spends her time between India and France to further her dance that combines tradition and modernity, a fusion and preservation of cultural heritage and creation with contemporary resonances. With her husband Kathakali exponent Michel Lestréhan, she founded La Compagnie Prana for propagation of their vision of dance in France and in India. Some of her dance creations over a period of time -  'Amba', 'Elémentaire', Gopika and Ganga have been received very well, We salute Brigitte's spirit of finding the middle ground between India and France and giving it her own vision to create beautiful pieces of contemporary dance.



Radhika Jha's 'Lantern on their horns'

Radhika Jha

Author of 'Smell', 'Lantern on their horns' and 'Elephant and the Maruti'*, Radhika Jha is not new to Paris having studied here as an exchange student. Born in 1970 in Delhi, Jha is a young Indian author who grew up in Bombay. She graduated in anthropology from Amherst College and in political sciences from Chicago University. She has worked with the United Nations and the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation where she started up the Interact project for the education of the children of the victims of terrorism in different parts of India. As a journalist, she has written for The Hindustan Times and Business world on the subjects of economy, culture and environment. For her novel 'Smell', Radhika received the Prix Guerlain in 2002. Radhika's novels are translated in various languages. Currently Radhika lives in Tokyo with her husband and 2 children and juggles between her professions as a writer and an accomplished Odissi dancer. Truly international and cosmopolitan, Radhika's voice resonates with contemporary Indians at the cross-roads between tradition and modernity and of Indians abroad in their quest for self-identity.


Alexandra David Neel


The name of Alexandra David Néel is known to western spiritual travellers who have travelled to Indian sub-continent in their mystical searches Alexandra was born in Paris in 1868. Her family moved near Brussels when she was six. During her growing up years, her desire for freedom and spirituality led her to travel to various neighbouring countries. Coming of age in 1888, she left her family and returned back to Paris. Here, she started to audit classes in oriental languages at the Sorbonne. She would spend leisure time in Guimet museum library. She travelled to India in 1890-91 and would return to Europe only when her funds would run short. In 1904, she met Philippe Néel in Tunis and married him. Her marriage with Philippe survived her years of travelling through their unshakeable friendship and mutual respect despite her absence from marital front from 1911-1925. In 1924, she became the first European women to travel to Lhasa, Tibet, erstwhile closed to foreigners.  On her return to Belgium, her marriage ended. Throughout her life, Alexandra was a prolific writer and chronicler of her travels having written more than 30 books on Eastern religion, philosophy and travel. Alexandra died at the ripe age of 101 at Digne-les-bains in South France. As per her last wishes, her ashes, mixed with her adoptive son's, were immersed in the Ganges at Varanasi. Alexandra David-Néel Cultural Center is the official contact related to the life and works of the explorer. The centre proposes guided free tours of Alexandra's house, disseminates information about the Tibetan culture and is involved in various charity projects for people of Tibet.


Related Program

SOS Charity Book Sale (with Poonam)

Ganga dance creation by Brigitte Chataignier

Presentation and Book signing by Radhika Jha

'Letters of Alexandra David Neel to her Husband' Reading and Music

Exhibition Himalaya: On the Footsteps of Alexandra David Neel