An exhibition reminds us of the forgotten legacy of the French in India

Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match, c. 1784-86
In our everyday experiences as Indians, the British Raj continues to cast a long shadow. But the legacy of the French is largely forgotten or unrecognised. An exhibition at the National Museum in Delhi, which opened yesterday, attempts to right the skew of imperialist memory.

Titled Rajas Nawabs & Firangees, the exhibition looks at the late 18th and early 19th century — a period which saw the waning of the French East India Company.

Samuel Berthet, a historian and director of Alliance Française, Hyderabad, curated the collection of paintings and manuscripts. Alliance Française, along with defence think tank United Service Institution of India, planned to organise an exhibition on French officers who served during the late 18th century. Berthet proposed to extend the idea to showcasing Indian collections in the French archives, particularly the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF).

Naval commander Eustache de Lannoy
French travellers such as Jean-Baptiste Tavernier and François Bernier — who was also briefly Mughal prince Dara Shikoh’s physician— find mention in history books for their voyages in the 17th century. But, Berthet points out, there are many who aren’t known in France or India.

The material at the exhibition “will help us recompose the complex puzzle of India in the 18th century”, otherwise noted for British expansion, which Berthet calls a post-facto or retroactive interpretation. 

A folio of a Parsi sacred text
Commercial imperial enterprises such as the French, Dutch and British East India companies competed with each other. Though imperial politics grew out of the East India Company, the people of the late 18th and early 19th centuries weren’t aware of the ascent of the British in India. “The British weren’t setting the standards,” he says, pointing out that as the Mughal empire was declining several regional powers were gaining in strength. French-speaking military men (some came from regions that were not yet part of France) who served under these rulers were made a part of the Indian social network, he says. They organised and led battalions and also became administrators of jagirs (a type of feudal land grant).

These French-speaking officers and Indian rulers are prominent characters at the exhibition. The first part is a collection of portraits of officers and rulers arranged in duos. The rulers cover Indian territory, from Kerala of today to Punjab, through regions like Bengal, Awadh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Poona, Hyderabad and Madurai.

An illustration of the papaya tree
A few French officers held the highest ranks in the Indian armies, and even became nawabs. Those who made their fortunes, such as Jean-Baptiste Gentil or Antoine Polier, went home with priceless Indian manuscripts.

Their collections offer a window into the interactions between the French officers of the day and Indians. For instance, a note on Gentil, written by academic Dhir Sarangi, says that he came to India in 1752 as an ensign of the French infantry and rose to the rank of a colonel. He spent 12 years out of 25 in India in Faizabad under Shuja-ud-Daula of Awadh. He assembled most of his albums of paintings here. “In terms of sheer diversity, both in terms of style and theme, the collection is a testimony to the open-minded intellectual curiosity of its owner, that too at a time when France’s experiments with absolutism were peaking and it was trying to exercise its hegemonic control over continents outside Europe,” the note adds.

The second part of the exhibition is a selection of Indian sacred texts preserved in the BNF. The first chair of Sanskrit in Europe was started in France in 1814 and held by Antoine-Léonard Chezy. Apart from various aspects of Hinduism, the BNF’s oeuvre includes manuscripts related to Islam, Buddhism, Tantrism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism. Zend Avesta experts such as Anquetil-Duperron (French indologist), Eugène Burnouf, Joachim Menant and many other French scholars would play a major role in the revival of Parsi classical culture by the end of the 19th century.

Portrait of Niccolo Manucci
What emerges from the exhibits is that India at the time is regarded as an important source of knowledge. “These manuscripts are going to be used in the 19th and 20th centuries to build the disciplines of Orientalist studies, comparative languages, causing a major shift in humanities and social sciences,” Berthet says.

The third and final part of the exhibition deals with the theme of “firangee paintings”. One of the sections focusses on the early representation of French-speaking travellers such as François Malherbe, Niccolao Manucci, Bernier and Tavernier. The other sections include books on Indian culture and Indian paintings of the Tanjore tradition representing divinities and communities commissioned by French administrators.

Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier
As the portraits would tell us, the travellers had to adapt to and even adopt the ways of life of the kingdoms and courts where they stayed. The first identified French traveller, Catala Jordan de Severac, became Bishop of Quilon in 1329, a note by Berthet points out. As we come to the 17th century, the peregrinations of the French only get more fascinating. François de La Boullaye-Le Gouz, an aristocrat, reached Persia for the French East India Company and gained the name of Ibrahim Beg.
Museum, New Delhi till December 7, 2019

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