Meet the artist-cum-scientist who charmed Modi and Macron

Priyanka Das Rajkakati was twice part of Macron’s team during interactions with Modi

24-Priyanka-Das-Rajkakati-with-President-Macron The art of science: Priyanka Das Rajkakati with President Macron at the state dinner in Paris. She is known for converting scientific research into tangible pieces of art.

She is known to possess an empathetic mind of remarkable maturity that is far beyond her years. Priyanka Das Rajkakati, who is in her early 30s, remains rooted despite rubbing shoulders with the world’s best scientific minds. She was twice part of French President Emmanuel Macron’s team during interactions with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She says Macron is very warm, with a sharp wit and a great sense of humour. Having observed Modi and Macron from close quarters, Priyanka feels they share a sense of mutual trust, which has been a vital ingredient in the growing India-France bilateral partnership. The artist-cum-aerospace scientist―she loves the dual identity―gave Senior Special Correspondent Sanjib Kr Baruah an outsider’s ‘insider perspective’ of India-France relations.

My childhood was spent in Delhi, where I attended The Mother’s International School, immersed in Indo-French culture. It only felt natural to move to France in 2013 to pursue higher studies. I also had another agenda for choosing France: the freedom to chart out a career in both arts and science. Now, a decade later, French President Emmanuel Macron knows me by my name and is familiar with my work―an immensely validating experience as a cross-cultural, nomadic artist-scientist.

I was privileged to be seated close to President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the dining table during the Bastille Day celebrations in Paris last July. Then, this year for the Republic Day in India, I was grateful to have been invited back to be a part of an event with President Macron in Jaipur on January 25.

Meeting heads of state is always an interesting experience, like having the fourth wall broken in a film. As a scientist, while I do have to adopt a neutral, dispassionate stance, as an artist, I suppose I can permit myself to share my perspective of the human beings behind such positions of responsibility. Up close, President Macron is indeed very warm and seemingly curious about you, with a sharp wit and a great sense of humour. He offered to introduce me to Prime Minister Modi last year during the state dinner, and then proceeded to take my photo with the prime minister. It is a much-treasured possession.

In Jaipur this time, my role was to facilitate his interaction with a select group of bright students learning French and aspiring to go to France, and hearing him speak about me as someone who has charted out a successful career for herself in France was a very humbling experience. In fact, he not only remembered me from last year’s dinner, but also remembered the painting I had presented him then. Of course, on both occasions, I had made it a point to wear the traditional Assamese ‘mekhela saador’, which not only helped me represent my Assamese roots, but also helped me stand out.

Macron offered to introduce me to Prime Minister Modi during the state dinner, and then proceeded to take my photo with the prime minister. It is a much-treasured possession now.

Having seen from close quarters the president and the prime minister interacting with each other, one can easily sense their mutual trust, which has been a vital ingredient in the rapidly warming India-France bilateral relationship. Even the attitude of the French people towards India and Indians has changed dramatically in recent years. If it was all about India’s poverty in the past, now it is about the vibrancy of a youthful India receiving its due at the high table of the comity of nations.

This is especially important for people like me, trying to keep a foot in my country of origin and another where life has led me. It has not exactly been easy, to establish myself as an artist with a scientific background, but the challenge has indeed taken me to some interesting places. Being a part of some prestigious institutes has opened many doors for me. Hence, I am grateful for my education. After graduating in physics from St Stephen’s College in Delhi, I joined Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, where I studied computer science, and then finished with a PhD from ISAE-Supaero in aerospace engineering, both premier institutes in France.

On the side, I continued exploring projects through technology. I have been an artist in residence at space conferences, converting scientific research into tangible pieces of art, which can also be used by scientists as engaging, visual representations of their work. I have sent a piece of my artwork to space as part of the Moon Gallery project, with the aim of provoking thought about which earthian aspects should interplanetary societies of the future take with them.

Currently, I am working on an art-science initiative called RiVeins, where the hypothesis of my research is that merely developing technologies, such as for flood warning, is not sufficient if we do not consider the vulnerable human aspect in their design, and that art can be the perfect medium to close this growing gap between cutting-edge science and society. I am also working as the head of special projects for a French company called vorteX-io, which is developing an innovative and intelligent river forecasting service. I am leading the WHYLD (Worldwide Hydrological Large-scale Database) project, and I hope to eventually partner with entities in India to adapt such a system back home, especially in Assam. My parents are from some of Assam’s most flood-prone districts.

So basically, I am now at the crossroads of three identities―French, Indian and Assamese. And I am glad that India-France bilateral ties are at their best now.