In this conversation, he discusses the importance of hand-painted signs in promoting cultural ties between India and the Dominican Republic and his efforts to bring them closer.
Ambassador David Puig joined the Dominican Foreign Service in 2004. Before his current posting as the Ambassador of the Dominican Republic in India, he has also served as a diplomat in France, India, Egypt and Belgium.
From 2011 to 2017, he was the Deputy Chief of Mission in Egypt. Between 2017 and 2020, he was charged with political affairs at the Dominican Embassy to the Kingdom of Belgium and Mission to the European Union, and formed part of the negotiating team for a post-Cotonou Agreement.
Beyond his work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Dominican Republic, he has been active in the cultural and literary scene in the Dominican Republic as a publisher, translator and author.
In this interview, he talks about the significance of hand-painted signs, areas of focus to promote the cultural ties between India and the Dominican Republic, and his efforts to bring India and the Dominican Republic closer.
Q. Back in April-May, the Embassy of the Dominican Republic organized an exhibition titled ‘Hand-Painted Signs from India and the Dominican Republic’ at the India Habitat Center. How did the exhibition come together?
A. The Embassy of the Dominican Republic in India invited artists Aradhana Seth and Maurice Sanchez to present work from their archives which documents the world of hand-painted signs from India and the Dominican Republic. Both have been documenting these types of paintings for several decades in their respective countries. Being interested myself in this art form, I realized that an exhibition putting together side by side photographs of hand-painted signs from India and the Dominican Republic would be an interesting way to talk about both countries: to show how, despite the geographical distance, India and Dominican Republic have, at the street level, so much in common.
Q. Tell us about the significance of the hand-painted signs?
A. Such signs have been an intrinsic part in streetscapes in many cities across continents but nowadays they are vanishing, as they are being replaced by digital boards. Hand-painted signs are locally made advertisements, and they reflect the imagination of the painters and the localities where they are made. They tell us stories about the people who live in those neighborhoods – who they are, how they see their cultural identities and what they desire. They are the same time artistic and sociological material. We find them in the walls of restaurants, shops and workspaces. These street signs cover the entire gamut of everyday life like a religious icon, a national flag, a dish of temptation, or a body that beckons and seduces.
Q. What got you interested in the hand-painted signs?
A. As I said I have been interested in hand-painted signs for a very long time. When I was here in India from 2006 to 2010, working as a Counsellor, I saw a lot of them and I was struck by their beauty. And I remember very well two places in Delhi where I used to see striking hand-painted signs. One of them is the Mahipalpur Road which used to be the main road to the airport back then. On that road, on the sidewalks, you used to have these advertisements for local doctors. They were mounted on frames and they were hand-painted. They always represented a man, quite muscular but with a broken leg or a broken arm, surrounded on both sides by a list of the ailments that the doctors promised to cure. The drawings were original, visually appealing, and very direct in their style of communication. Now the doctors are still there but their signs are less striking and more uniform, since they are digitally made.
Q. Did you get a chance to speak to any local artisans painting these signs at the time?
A. My passion was so much with these paintings that I actually went one day and asked one of the doctors where his board had been made and who was the painter that had done the board for him. And he was kind enough to direct me to a man who lived nearby in Mahipalpur. So I went to this painter and I told him that I wanted for me a reproduction of that board, but that I wanted it with my name and phone. The painter was surprised, of course, and said to me, “Why do you want this? You are not a doctor. This is only for doctors. I cannot do it. I cannot do it for you.” But I insisted and I explained that I was seeing this not as an advertisement to put outside of my house, but that I was actually seeing this as a form of art because of the beauty of it and that I wanted it for the walls ofmy house. He finally agreed to do it and I still have that piece hanging in my studio.
Then, when I moved back to my country, I discovered the work of Maurice Sánchez, who is one of the two artists whose work we showed in the exhibition at the IHC. He had been photographing hand-painted signs in the Dominican Republic for a very long time and in a way he opened my eyes to the fact that these hand-painted signs were also a very big tradition in my own country. So when I came back to India as the Ambassador in 2021, I already had the idea that this connection could be made.
Q5. As the Ambassador the Dominican Republic, what have been your areas of priority to promote the cultural ties between India and the Dominican Republic?
A. Well, as a diplomat, we are always looking for ways to connect the country in which we are serving and our country. And being myself involved in the cultural sector in the Dominican Republic, I pay a lot of attention to the potential of culture as a link. So this exhibition was an important part of our cultural initiatives. We have also done a lot with music. We have had bands from the Dominican Republic performing in several Indian cities. The Dominican rhythm, Bachata, is highly appreciated by dancers in India and we have been organizing workshops and parties for those who like to move to this beat. We have had literature exchanges, both online and in person. Earlier this year the poet Frank Báez attended the Jaipur Literature Festival and presented a book in Bengali at Kolkata Book Fair. Also, we have screened dozens of movies representing the Dominican cinema not only in Delhi but across India. With the visual arts, other than organizing exhibitions, we want to have artists from the Dominican Republic coming to India for residencies. For this, we have been working with different institutions, and hopefully we will start in 2024.
Q. Also tell us about your personal literary contributions in bringing India and the Dominican Republic closer?
A. I left India in 2010, at the end of my first tenure in Delhi; India remained with me in two particular ways. I had started to learn Hindi in Delhi and I have intermittently continued learning. While posted in Egypt, I enrolled at the Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture in Cairo to keep practicing. And the second way is that I started to translate Indian literature into Spanish. I have contributed in my small capacity to the cultural dialogue between India and the Spanish speaking world because I have so far translated two books written by Indian authors. I translated Arun Kolatkar, who is an Indian poet from Maharashtra. I translated one of his English works into Spanish and it was published in 2020. I have also translated a book by Altaf Tyrewala who is a novelist from Bombay, again from English to Spanish.