A French rendezvous: A repository of unseen archives and miniatures on display

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Published: November 24, 2019 12:15:27 AM

France and India have vibrant democracies and are known for their individualistic yet diverse culture, food and style, besides sharing a common passion for cinema.

Various works of art on display include portraits and miniature paintings of French aristocrats and Indian rulers depicting lifestyle in the 17th and 18th centuriesVarious works of art on display include portraits and miniature paintings of French aristocrats and Indian rulers depicting lifestyle in the 17th and 18th centuries

Following the Portuguese, English and Dutch, the French rulers established their trading base in Pondicherry in 1674. A time when trading rivalries brought many European powers to India and when the subcontinent attracted almost 50% of the global trade. Often the French officers served various rulers in India and became nawabs endowed with jagirs, and the fortunate ones, such as Jean-Baptiste Gentil or Antoine Polier, brought back invaluable collections of Indian manuscripts. Some of these find space in a collaborative exhibition titled ‘Rajas, Nawabs and Firangees, Treasures from the French and the Indian archives (1750-1850)’ at The National Museum in New Delhi, on display till December 7.

Drawn from the archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the collection houses rare miniature paintings and artefacts—arms and ammunition of the war— showcasing a glimpse of the Indian court life through the eyes of 12 French-speaking officers and Indian rulers serving from 1750-1850.

“It’s the first time these priceless treasures are being displayed in India as this period saw a fabulous association between raja and firangees, art and ideas. Our intention to portray these works is to show how the French era was bigger than the British expansion. As Indian lifestyle was a model to emulate, so a lot of India influence in France is visible in the paintings, either in the clothes worn by the officers in different regions or the floral motives on painted vases. The selection of Indian rulers covers most of the Indian territory, from present Kerala to Punjab, through Bengal, Awadh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Poona, Hyderabad, Madurai,” says Samuel Berthet, the curator of the exhibition, who is also the director of Alliance Francaise in Hyderabad.

France and India have vibrant democracies and are known for their individualistic yet diverse culture, food and style, besides sharing a common passion for cinema. Hence, Berthet shares that the artworks depict a seamless dialogue between the two countries. In the work titled The gardens of Orissa, there is a display of Indian botany prepared by the Frenchmen; one can see the representation of French characters walking on fire, the early colonial tone of administrative buildings in those decades; books on Indian culture (botany, history and numismatic) commissioned by French personas, Nicolas Lempereur and Jean-Baptiste Gentil, and painted by Indian artists for French readers, are also on display.

Interestingly, the exhibition is divided into four sections: The first leg displays portraits of 12 duos of French officers, and the Indian rulers in whose court they served, covering most of the Indian territory. The second part shows a selection of the wide collection of Indian sacred texts preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale, the French National Library. Apart from various aspects of Hinduism, the collection also holds manuscripts related to Islam, and various other religions, including Buddhism, Tantrism, Jainism and also the ancient religion of the Parsis, alongside the sword of Tipu Sultan. The third leg looks at the complex theme of firangee paintings in the light of the French experience, and answers how foreigners projected themselves during their sojourn in the east, and how were they represented by indigenous miniature artists. The last section is composed of Indian paintings representing Indian divinities and communities commissioned by French administrators to Indian painters of the Tanjore tradition.

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