10 French people shaping Mumbai

10 French people shaping Mumbai

Meet the French men and women bringing 'le bon vie' from Paris to Mumbai via food, fashion, music and art

According to a recent BVA-Gallup poll, Indians are the most optimistic people in the world while French are the most pessimistic.

"Maybe that's why so many French people are coming here!" jokes Mathieu Josso, a French DJ who lives in Bandra.

Although Mumbai is attracting professionals from all over the world, the French are among the most prominent and the most active. Many have installed themselves at the forefront of Mumbai's cultural scene and are leading the way in the worlds of fashion, art, music and food.

When they are not hanging out at cafes, galleries and gigs they are pouring their experience, gleaned from working in the French capital of cultural sophistication, into making Mumbai a more vibrant place to live.

We introduce you to some of the French people behind the Mumbai cultural institutions we all love.


{C}Eve LemeseleEve Lemesle, director of What About Art?

Before she left Paris, Lemesle worked as a curator for Point Ephémère, an art center in the happening Canal St. Martin of Paris.

"For eight years I traveled to India regularly and invited Indian artists for residencies," she says.

Then, after years of bringing Indians to Paris, she turned things on their head and moved to India herself three years ago.

"I moved to Bombay because there is a kind of New York energy in this city that I love," she says.

Six months ago, Lemesle launched an arts management agency called What About Art?, which works with local artists and galleries including Project 88 and Volte.

With the company growing, it will be a while before she considers going back.

"Paris is a beautiful old city, but nothing new is happening there. Bombay is changing all the time," feels Lemesle.

{C}Kevin Laila TalebalyKevin Tayebaly and Leïla Tayebaly, founders of Art Loft

The Tayebaly siblings, who are half Gujarati and half French, lived in countries as diverse as Reunion Island and China before settling in Mumbai.

"My sister Leïla worked as an arts therapist in Beijing and Paris and also managed an atelier there," says Kevin. "After her husband was posted in India with a French company three years ago, she started offering art therapy classes in her home before opening the Art Loft in April 2009. A month after the Art Loft opened, I quit my job at CapGemini to work with her full time."

The Tayebaly's, who were behind the Art Conspiracy festival in Bandra last year, miss very few things about Paris, except friends, family and food.

"We do miss French delicacies like saucissons, cheese and wine. Every time we have friends visiting, we always ask them to bring food!"

Matthieu FossMatthieu Foss, owner of Matthieu Foss Gallery

Before Matthieu Foss' gallery opened in the historic Fort area last year, there was no private gallery in the city dedicated solely to photography.

Thanks to Foss' experience in the Parisian world of photography, he was able to meet the challenge of running a photography gallery in a new market.

"I was one of the founders of the Paris Photo, a fair which takes place every year. I also worked in the photography section of galleries like Baudoin Lebon," says Foss. "Without that experience, I wouldn't have been able to do this."

Foss, who has lived in India for five years now, is married to Marie-Lou Phillips, a French-speaking Indian from Bandra, who he met in Paris and who works in India with Chanel.

"I have always been attracted to India and always spoke with Marie-Lou about moving here," he says. Adding that, "I do miss the museums and galleries in Paris sometimes, but I am lucky that galleries here are thriving and doing a great job."


Mathieu Josso and Charles Nuez, DJs with Bhavishyavani Future Soundz

Back in Paris, Josso used to organize small raves and parties and worked as a DJ part time. After moving to India in 2003, he met Charles Nuez, another French DJ, who used to work on French radio.

Besides respective day jobs the two joined with a like-minded set of Indians at Bhavishyavani Future Soundz, an events company and DJ collective building a credible underground electronic music scene for Mumbai almost from scratch. 

Today the Frenchmen commandeer one of the best dance music parties in town, a Sunday sundowner on Juhu's beachfront which has brought to Mumbai the likes of dOP, Peter Kruder, M.A.N.D.Y., Shpongle, Mathew Johnson and Cobblestone Jazz.

"I love meeting upcoming artists here and being part of the underground scene," says Josso. Nuez agrees, but adds that "the scene is still very small!"

Josso, who is married to Bhawna Sharma, a successful Mumbai fashion model, says "In Paris, people may be more aware about electronic music, but here people aren't in their own little niche. They are more open."

{C}Emmanuelle de DeckerEmmanuelle de Decker, programme manager at Blue Frog

After three years with the Alliance Française in Kolkata and a brief stint in Seoul, de Decker moved to Mumbai to work for Blue Frog, a revolutionary live music venue, restaurant and recording studio, when it opened in 2007.

"I came because of the job. My background is in the music business, I've always worked in this scene," says the Parisian, who has been a band manager and organizer for music festivals such as the Dublin Jazz Festival.

This experience has been invaluable in her job at Blue Frog, she explains.

"I have a large network in Europe of booking agents and musicians, which I use to bring new acts to India," she says.

Introducing local audiences to new music has been exciting and heartening for de Decker, as has been the attitude of her employer.

"Blue Frog is a fantastic company. They have many ideas and like challenges. I feel like I'm part of a small music revolution. In Paris, people say 'No, we can't do that.' Here, everyone says 'Go for it!'"


{C}Mathieu Gugumus LeguillonMathieu Gugumus Leguillon, head designer for fashion at Bungalow 8

Leguillon met Maithili Ahluwalia, the owner of decadent concept store Bungalow 8, at a house party in Paris.

"Back then, the idea of us working together started as a joke. I didn't think she'd follow up, but she did," remembers Leguillon, who has worked for Lanvin and Yves Saint Laurent in France.

Leguillon had never lived outside France before, but soon learned that India complemented his professional skill set perfectly.

"In France, we know how to cut garments and construct a collection. In India, however, the focus is on embroidery and decoration," says Leguillon. Adding that "I am continually learning and drawing inspiration from India's rich tradition of fabrics."

Leguillon used to live in Montmartre, but now he goes back only rarely.

"Every time I am there, I take a deep breath of the city and then forget about it until the next time I am back," he says.

{C}Emmanuel BalayerEmmanuel Balayer, marketing consultant for luxury brands

Luxury consultant Balayer started his 10 year love affair with India when he was still a PhD candidate, researching the Indian legal system.

"Back then, I realized the potential of India. I wanted to be in this part of the world and the fact that India is an English-speaking country made it easy for me," says Balayer, who finds living in Paris too stressful.

After a stint as director of the Indo-French Chamber of Commerce, Balayer moved into the luxury sector, where his clients include Moet Hennesy, Tods, BMW and Rolls Royce.

He pins down the French advantage in this sector as being due to his homeland's laid back and confident attitude.

"I don't wear three piece suits to work. In India, there is a lot of hierarchy and authority but I bring a very relaxed Mediterranean culture, and I deliver results. People respect that."


{C}Frederic FernandezFrederic Fernandez, partner at French bistro Chez Vous

Fernandez, a partner at Mumbai's first stand-alone French bistro Chez Vous, moved to India by pure chance.

"I was traveling in 2009 and on my last night in Bombay I cooked a French meal for my friends. They loved it and said I should open a French restaurant.

"I always wanted to be a chef, but because I was a good student my parents wanted me to get a 'serious' job, so I went into investment banking," Fernandez says.

His business skills, however, helped him to make a business plan for the restaurant.

"My friends and family thought it was an unusual move, but they said if I'm happy then it's fine," he says.

The partners lucked out with a great location, a space that was once the popular Sundance Cafe next to the art deco Eros cinema, and are serving up soup à l’oignon, Roquefort cheese and Chateauneuf du Pape wine.

Five months into operations Fernandez is happy with the way French food is being received in Mumbai, though when the restaurant first opened there were some challenges.

"Many people wanted Tabasco and spices in the food," he says. "Thankfully, that's changed now!"

Amana is a freelance feature writer based in Mumbai.
Read more about Amana Fontanella-Khan