How I ended up having a dinner with PM Modi and President Macron

How I ended up having a dinner with PM Modi and President Macron

I was to join the table seating the President Macron and his guest of honour, Prime Minister Modi. There were also a number of distinguished personalities on the table, such as industrialist Lakshmi Mittal, actor Madhavan, Leena Nair, the CEO of Chanel (who complimented my emerald green mekhela-chador), and Shankar Krishnamoorthy, the CEO of the unicorn startup Ynsect. Priyanka Das Rajkakati

Assam's Priyanka Das Rajkakati with Prime Minister Narendra Modi Assam's Priyanka Das Rajkakati with Prime Minister Narendra Modi

It’s not every day that one receives an email from the French President’s office, and so I almost sent mine to the spam folder. Then I remembered it just might be, with the unlikely chance, that one invite I had been secretly hoping to receive. One week later, on 14th July, I was at the Louvre, representing the world of space artist-scientists, proudly wearing my favourite mekhela-chador to bring Assam global visibility, while getting to sit at the table of honour directly across Emmanuel Macron, President of the Republic of France, his wife, Brigitte Macron, and our very our Prime Minister, Sri Narendra Modi. 

So, how does one get to even be on the President’s exclusive guestlist of Indo-French bilateral ties, let alone the main table? For me, it is largely thanks to the Campus France India: I had the great honour of being nominated and selected as part of the 17 alumni ambassadors of the 2023-25 cohort of the France Alumni programme. As I am based in France, when I learnt that President Macron had invited PM Modi to be his guest of honour for the Bastille Day celebrations, I requested Campus France India to see if I could somehow attend the event in some small measure. They really went out of their way and nominated me for the event – which still does not guarantee an invite – but, et voilà, as they say, the invitations for both the official dinner and the Bastille Day parade were in my email in a few weeks. I was, of course, extremely happy about it, but had not imagined then the level at which my participation would be rewarding.

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi
With Prime Minister Narendra Modi (This photo was clicked by President Macron)

It was a great honour to represent the world of space art and science at such a platform, while representing my cultural origins from the land of Assam too. My fascination with France started from childhood, having studied at The Mother’s International School in Delhi (a shoutout to Anuradha Karkun ma’am, my French teacher!) Then, after obtaining my bachelor’s degree in Physics from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, I got into the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, where I pursued a multidisciplinary engineering course. Dreaming about someday becoming an astronaut, I finished my studies with a Ph.D. in satellite navigation from ISAE-Supaéro in Toulouse, in an industrial contract with Safran.

However, my technical education and experiences aside, I have always been an artist at heart, ever more so thanks to the encouragement of my parents who had immersed my brother and I in our rich Assamese culture while growing up in Delhi. Even in those destabilising moments that we all have in life, art has greatly helped me overcome mine. Indeed, I have had a rather interesting decade since I moved to France in 2013, continuing to experiment with interdisciplinary art+tech projects. One of my dearest projects is my artwork Bhedadipika, which spent a year onboard the International Space station via the Moon Gallery project. In fact, I had the opportunity to present a sample of this artwork, which included digital simulations, to both President Macron and Prime Minister Modi. After trying to handle art and science projects in parallel, in order to professionally combine the two, I am finally setting up an art+tech studio, Atelier Arth (atelier means ‘workshop’ in French, and arth is, well, ‘meaning’). The first visiting cards were printed and distributed this week during Bastille Day!

The Bastille Day parade itself has been quite a unique experience for me, having attended it twice now under completely different circumstances. In 2015, I had been part of the Ecole Polytechnique troop in the Grande Uniforme, parading in front of then French President, François Hollande. This time, I was viewing it from the Indian delegation gallery near the Place de la Concorde, where the President himself stands. 2023 marks the 25th anniversary of the India-France Strategic Partnership. A moment of pride on seeing the Indian armed forces contingent led by a military band. There was also an incredible lineup of aircraft, including several generations of Rafale jets. All good things happening at once, there was an ex-ISRO veteran standing next to me, and together we celebrated the successful launch of the Chandrayaan-3 as well, which happened during the event. It was seeing PM Modi and President Macron from a distance of a few tens of metres, which served as preparation for meeting them in person later that evening.

At 8 pm sharp, I arrived at the Louvre Museum for the official dinner, very excited and in for a great surprise. Initially there was some confusion in finding my invitation (happens even in France), but when I was finally handed my card with the seating order, I blinked and read it twice. It said table d’honneur – it seemed I was to join the table seating the President Macron, Brigitte Macron, and his guest of honour, Prime Minister Modi! There were also a number of distinguished personalities on the table, such as industrialist Lakshmi Mittal, the actor Madhavan, Leena Nair, the CEO of Chanel (who complimented my emerald green mekhela-chador), and Shankar Krishnamoorthy, the CEO of the unicorn startup Ynsect, who was my immediate neighbour. I did feel very young at that table, but life has taught me that an opportunity should never be wasted over imposter syndrome.

With PM Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron
With PM Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron

The dinner itself was hosted inside the Cours Marly, covered by a glass ceiling and surrounded by iconic French statues from the 17th-19th centuries. Apparently the last time a foreign dignitary to be hosted for a banquet here was Queen Elizabeth in 1957. The event started with an address from both President Macron and PM Modi on the Indo-French friendship, which has had a long history especially in the space sector that I am passionate about, and seeing it happening a few feet away was simply incredible. After the toasts, the courses started arriving – prepared by Michelin starred chef, Romain Meder – a gourmet ensemble of vegetarian inspirations. I was very fortunate to be sitting next to several extraordinary people, including senior officials, artists and entrepreneurs, and learning so much from their experiences.

I was a bit nervous at first to talk with President Macron who was sitting just across the table from me. However, I instantly relaxed when he spoke very warmly and also seemed to be fully aware of my background and projects (but of course the French President would be briefed about his guests). In fact, it was incredible when he offered to personally introduce me to Brigitte Macron and PM Modi! There was also a hilarious moment when President Macron offered to personally click my photo with PM Modi with my phone. Across the table, even Madhavan was laughing about it, and I happened to photobomb his photo later, when I had the opportunity to speak to Brigitte Macron and present an artwork who received it very elegantly. It was equally fascinating to meet PM Modi in person and talk to him about my work as an artist and space scientist. Congratulations, sir, on the Medal of the Legion of Honor, the highest French order of merit, but civilian and military. Indeed his visit has been strategically important for Indo-French bipartite relations, especially in my field of aerospace.

With Bollywood actor R Madhavan
With Bollywood actor R Madhavan

This event has been a deeply personal and humbling experience for me. As an artist whose work depends a lot on the feeling inspired by visual input, seeing these larger than life people at such close proximity, it is a difficult feeling to describe – it breaks the wall of intimidation you feel about someone that powerful. Up close, they seemed so very human. Indeed, I am so very honoured that my work on the human aspect of space exploration – not simply scientific, but from a philosophical and artistic point of view – has gained enough recognition to have found myself at such a prestigious seating arrangement, especially to take the role of that one young professional at the esteemed table of dignitaries and yes, as an Assamese woman.

One of my art-science projects through Atelier Arth is indeed on Assam, where I am fortunate be working under the guidance of inspiring space scientists such as Dr Diganta Barman and even artists like Adil Hussain, on the concept of a community-based flood resilience system in Assam, RiVeins, where local artistic practices would be infused into the system in order to not only have a efficient technological solution, but one that is trusted by the people using it. This project has also received immense support from the French side such as the French embassy to India and CNES, Vortex-io, BWI and several artists and designers. Through an upcoming trip to Antarctica via the Homeward Bound initiative for women-in-science, which has received significant support from the Assam government, I intend to continue highlighting my beautiful state through art-science initiatives.

With French President Emmanuel Macron
With French President Emmanuel Macron

I am very much looking forward to where this would lead Atelier Arth, as India joins the human spaceflight era with the upcoming Gaganyaan missions. On this note, one of my upcoming projects is to be joining The Spaceflight Institute in Toulouse, which has developed the world's first commercial astronaut certificate programme following the requirements from the FAA, NASA and other space agencies. It is partnering with top space institutions like my alma mater, ISAE-Supaero, and my role would be in International Relations and as Chief Designer, bringing on board the artistic side to space. Art and culture are the essence of humanity and I am here to advocate for its part in the holistic and sustainable development of future human space societies, while respecting and preserving our fragile Earth.


The author is an aerospace engineer and artist, and founder of Atelier Arth

Edited By: Nandita Borah
Published On: Jul 17, 2023