Sakti Burman, an artist whose work best symbolises a bridge between eastern mysticism and the stylistic richness of the west, was conferred the highest French civilian distinction, Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, in a special ceremony held at the French Ambassador’s residence in Delhi earlier this week. The artist now joins ranks with some of the best names in the world of arts, who were awarded the French order in their lifetime — figures like Jean Cocteau, Alexander Dumas, Satyajit Ray and Pandit Ravi Shankar among several others.

“This is something that is highly deserved,” said the French ambassador to India, François Richier, who represented the French government at the felicitation ceremony on Thursday. “Because we love you, the French President decided to honour you with this highest civilian order.”

This order, Richier told the audience, was established as far back as the 1800s by Napoleon Bonaparte to recognise and honour public figures “for outstanding service to France, regardless of the nationality of the recepients”. 

But Burman himself has been a longtime resident of France. Born in 1935 in Calcutta, he immigrated to France in the ’50s, to study visual arts at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris on a government scholarship. He later married one of his colleagues at this college, the French artist Maïté Delteil, and has lived in France ever since.

Yet the distance from his country of birth has only served to strengthen Burmna’s emotional bond with the febrile creative terrain of Calcutta and New Delhi.

At the felicitation ceremony, the audience, comprising mainly Burman’s friends and family, also got to watch a full-length documentary on the artist’s life. The film highlighted his imaginative straddling of the French and Indian spheres, as well as providing a first-hand account of Burman’s many attempts to channelise into his art both his Parisian and Indian experiences. This is what people mean when they see Burman’s work as being “located at the confluence of French, European and Indian cultures”.

Four of Burman’s recent paintings, prominently on display on the lawns of the French Ambassador’s residence on Thursday, were eloquent testimonies to this double, or even triple,

“Today, I am very happy that my work is appreciated and that I am being honoured,” Burman, visibly moved, told the audience at the ceremony. “This is not part of my speech, but I’d like to share it with you. SO when I was young, one of my friends told me about a young man who had received Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. I asked him, ‘What is Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur?’ And today, I myself received it. I don’t know how to thank you enough for this.”

Ever since completing his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the late 1950s, Burman has produced a sizeable body of work — paintings, sketches, watercolours, lithographs and sculptures — that stands out in the history of modern art as something uniquely original and refresingly contemporary. His canvases are carefully and painstakingly detailed — and some of them take months to be completed.

It’s difficult to pigeonhole Burman’s work by assigning it to this or that movement, or perceiving in it any one dominant ifluence — of, say, western or eastern strains of art. And this precisely is the quality that makes his paintings aesthetically forceful and striking, giving them their “dream-like” patina that is unlike anything else in art history.

Burman has previously been awarded Medaille d’Argent au Salon de Montmorency and the Prix des Etrangers, Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 1950s, for his unparalleld contributions  to visual arts.

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