Tuesday, Feb 07, 2023

Lessons in History

An exhibition in the Capital gives insight into the lesser-known links between India and France.

A painting showcasing Colonel Antoine-Louis Henri Polier watching a nautch

Michel Raymond’s India story began in 1775 when he moved to Pondicherry (now Puducherry) with his brother to open a shop. He, however, joined the military soon after, moved to Mysore when the British occupied the port city and then eventually joined Nizam Ali Khan’s army in Hyderabad, became his right hand man and a force against the British. There was also Chevalier de Lallee who headed the Swiss Army, maintained by the Nizam’s estranged brother Basalat Jung, which had 500 Europeans, 500 Topasses, 1400 sepoys and a small artillery train. After a brief stint in Hyderabad and a futile bid to tie up with the Marathas, he finally took his corps to Mysore and advised Tipu Sultan in the Battle of Pollilur in 1780. The two are among 12 military officers whose stories come alive at the exhibition ‘Rajas, Nawabs & Firangees: Treasures from French & Indian Archives (1750 – 1850)’ on display at the National Museum in Delhi.

“The exhibition gives an idea of the widespread presence of French military men in the peninsula, along with other European ones. Few of them reached the highest position in the hierarchy of Indian armies, and even became nawabs themselves, some were endowed with jagirs, and others died anonymously on the battlefield or elsewhere during their journey in India,” says historian Samuel Berthet, who curated the exhibition, along with Bishwadeep Moitra.

Samuel Berthet

He adds that the officers, two of whom — Jean-Baptiste Gentil or Antoine Polier — took back collections of Indian manuscripts which are part of the archives at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF). What has come to India are high resolution reproductions of these paintings and manuscripts that adorn the National Museum walls at the exhibition. These give the Indian audience a rare access into the albums that are normally restricted to a handful of accredited researchers.

“There are so many travelogues and archives in France about India but not much is known about them. People were surprised that we did not include (Joseph Marquis) Dupleix or (Charles Joseph Patissier de) Bussy but they are already well known. We also wanted to go beyond military history as few of them took incredible collections of Indian manuscripts with them. When people think of Indian miniatures, they think of the British collections and not the French ones,” says Berthet. The exhibition covers most of the Indian territory, from present Kerala to Punjab, through Bengal, Awadh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Poona, Hyderabad, and Madurai. “All of them adapted and at times adopted the lifestyle of the court where they served, and learned the language,” says Berthet. One of them who went native “with both depth and aplomb” was Antoine-Louis Polier. He found a home in Shuja-ud-Daula’s Awadh and commissioned paintings by the famous artist Mir Chand, manuscripts on Hindu mythology and was fluent in Urdu and Persian.

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The second part displays a selection of many sacred texts preserved at the BNF. There is the Kalpasutra, a part of the 300 Jaina manuscripts at the French archive, the Buddhist Dharani, the Adi Granth, written in Gurmukhi, from Polier’s collection, and a copy of Quran, written in a script specific to Indian called the Bihari. Gentil, who was one of the first to collect albums of Indian paintings, also took with him folios of devotional poetry, and several copies of the illustrated Bhagavad Gita, which are part of the exhibition. The exhibition takes us to the world of the firangees and answers questions like how did they project themselves during their eastern sojourn, and how were they represented by indigenous miniature artists.

The exhibition is on at National Museum till December 7

First published on: 04-12-2019 at 00:58 IST
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