Stepping into a Presidential suite can always be a tad intimidating. It’s reserved for the highest rung of VIPs, you see. On this particular evening, a meeting has been set with Frenchman Olaf Van Cleef, scion of the distinguished Van Cleef family and counsellor on high range jewellery for Cartier over the last three decades. Monsieur Cleef is quite the opposite of what is expected. For starters, he pads around barefoot in his plush carpeted abode on the seventh floor of the Taj Coromandel. Also, though in his sixties now, he is quite happy being called just ‘Olaf.’ “This is why I love India,” he confides, in English-coated, thick French accent, “Here I discover what is respect – just for Olaf, not Olaf Van Cleef.”
For the time being, his suite has been transformed into a gallery of sorts. The jewel expert is also reputed widely for his painting prowess – a canvas of Indian mythology adorned with delicate focal points of crystal. This collection is a festive showcase, ahead of Diwali, aptly titled Gods and Goddesses. Olaf is quick to offer a tour, and eager to go into the details of his work. “Each piece takes me 250 to 300 hours,” he states, evidentally used to the responses of wonderment that follow. “It’s not at a stretch, I usually work about five hours a night,” he goes on. “Beyond that it becomes too difficult to focus.” The artist is clearly also a perfectionist.
First he draws. “I usually get my images from the internet, because I work from Paris,” he reveals. “Also, I’m a big fan of Ravi Varma.” Then, he mixes a light palette of water colour that goes on to his white canvas. “I have to make the canvas my own,” Olaf elaborates passionately. In the third and most important stage, he glues on the elements that make his work unique. “Crystal and chocolate wrapping paper,” he says, offering this reporter a magnifying glass for a ‘larger’ perspective. Subtle glints of gold, silver and pink wrap seem to bounce off the canvas on closer look. “I use three pairs of spectacles to see all the finer details when I’m at work,” the Frenchman puts on all three (literally) to illustrate. He then reaches for another essential tool of the trade: black gel pens that are used to enhance the outlines of his drawings. As always with Olaf, the novelty is in the size. The nibs are as fine as 0.05mm! One has to wonder what his daily spectacle power is with such intricate work all the time. The artist responds unabashedly, “I don’t know. Maybe in 10 years, I will have no sight at all with the kind of work I do.”
‘Which god is this one?’ the question is posed offhand. It takes him by surprise. He pauses unsurely, then laughs with a twinkle in his eye. It turns out from the chakra in one hand and the peacock feather on the head adornment, that the god in the painting is Krishna. Asked about the responses in Paris to his art, he responds dismissively. “I never exhibit there (Paris). They don’t understand my work.” Then he goes on to explain blatantly, “In France, if a man is wearing jewellery (even in a painting), they ask: Is he gay?” So ironically, it turns out that Olaf’s biggest markets for his art are not in Europe, but in India, China and Brazil.
One has to wonder out loud how his interest in Indian gods came to be in the first place. “I was at a market in Puducherry and I saw a temple painting with lots of shiny glitter and beautiful jewellery,” Olaf responds. “So this is my life now: diamonds by day, crystals by night.”
The exhibition is on view at the Taj Coromandel till October 28. For details, call 0956667799