Mission Delhi – Berenice Ellena, Jangpura

One of the one per cent in 13 million.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

When sad, Berenice Ellena locks herself in her Jangpura apartment and listens to flamenco songs, Portuguese lamentations or nostalgic Brazilian music. “I love the sound of these languages,” the Frenchwoman says. “They are like a cuddle.”

Born in Bordeaux, the famous wine region in France, Ms Ellena has been in Delhi for two years, creating European designs out of Indian fabrics. She first took a house in Nizamuddin West, a neighbourhood popular with foreigners. “In Paris, there are different areas, which are like villages with distinct personalities,” says Ms Ellena, “and Nizamuddin West is like that.” In the evenings, she would walk around the streets of Nizamuddin Basti, the 14th century settlement, and visit the sufi shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya to listen to qawwalis.

It was Bharatnatyam that drew Ms Ellena to this country. Captivated by this classical dance form, she came to Chennai, down south, in 1976 for lessons. It has, however, not been a continuous stay in India.

During later trips, she explored the north, but avoided Delhi. “I was looking for quieter places,” says Ms Ellena. But now, she finds the city engaging. “So many things are happening… the art scene is buzzing, there’s energy.”

In summers, the energy gets too much, though. Then she escapes to her big house in the Bordeaux countryside. “There are deer… oak, chestnut and pine trees,” she says. “The forest creates humidity, so even if it’s not winter, you see layers of mist in the mornings.”

Dividing time between continents is not new to Ms Ellena. She has lived in Paris, Rio de Janeiro and Casablanca, Morocco. After the first Indian tour, she spent four years in Venice. “Being a city whose merchants regularly travelled to Africa and the Middle East, Venice is like a door to the Orient,” she says. “When you reach there by train and walk out of the station, it is as if you are on a ghat in Benares. You have the water, the lights, and the lights of the water playing on the (building) facades.”

In Delhi, Ms Ellena faced the usual tenancy problems – she had to leave her Nizamuddin West home within a year. “Blame my classic Punjabi landlord,” she says, laughing. “They want foreigners but give the lease only for 11 months, saying, ‘No problem, madam, if you are a good person, we will keep renewing the contract for 10 years.’ But then the broker, the chalaak lomri (cunning fox), is always hunting for foreigners who would pay more and then he convinces the landlord to kick you out.”

In Ms Ellena’s case, the landlord gave the excuse of demolishing the house for renovation. A week after moving to next-door Jangpura, she heard that a new tenant had taken her old house. In the new home, the landlady once stormed into her apartment fearing that the Muslim tailor working with Ms Ellena’s clothes could be a terrorist.

How does this stylish European woman cope with Delhi’s dust, fumes and landlords? “But it’s beautiful,” she says. “I think it is the only city in the world with so much greenery… look at the trees, squares and parks… and the Lodhi tombs.”

At dusk, Ms Ellena usually goes to India Habitat Centre or India International Centre for art exhibitions and music concerts. She takes cabs, and the occasional auto if the weather is pleasant. “I don’t go far,” she says. “Don’t want to leave too large a carbon footprint.” Sometimes, her work takes her to meet leather workers in Karol Bagh, the chaotic bazaar in central Delhi. “They live in terrible conditions,” says Ms Ellena. “But I never close my eyes, never pretend back home that such degradation doesn’t exist.”

When Ms Ellena returns to Bordeaux during the summer break, her house is full with friends. “Then I don’t miss Delhi,” she says. “But when I’m here, I don’t miss France.”

[This is the second portrait of the Mission Delhi project]