Rajas, Nawabs and Firangees

It is showing unseen historic archives of French mercenaries serving Indian rulers during the latter half of 18th and first five decades of the 19th century (1750-1850). The treasures are vignettes of Indian court life, representations of French travellers, and sacred texts in the form of rare manuscripts and paintings. Taken from the  archives of Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and the National Museum, New Delhi, they were contextualized when the British East India Company was a rising power in the subcontinent, and the French East India Company’s army was being successively defeated, by the aforementioned.

Alliance française de Delhi, the United Service Institution of India, and the National Museum present – “Rajas, Nawabs and Firangees” from 15th November till 7th December ’19 at Delhi’s National Museum.


We spoke to the curator – Samuel Berthet, Director of Alliance française de Hyderabad, to learn more.

MD: You’ve researched the Indo-french relations between 1870-1962. What specifically is being highlighted in this exhibition?
SB: In this exhibition, we’ve highlighted the period of direct contacts, prior to colonial rule in India, when Europeans and Indians fought and lived cordially alongside each other. It was remarkable in the case of the French, since quite few of them,  across India served the Indian rulers as officers. The highest ranking ones were often given jagirs to pay their troops. They were a part of the subcontinent’s socioeconomic fabric or culture, which meant learning the language, protocol, and displaying their might as patrons in the Indian courts. Some even took keen interest, which was beyond their call of duty here. They took back manuscripts and albums to France where scholars such as Eugène Burnouf or his student Friedrich Max Müller studied them. With aids such as these, scholars wrote on religions and languages of the 19th century, enriching world history. At present, most of those manuscripts are preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de Francethe national library of France located in Paris.
MD: But what really bewitched the french about India, specially since they came here only offering expertise on war?
SB: The prospect of fortune no doubt played a big role. Indian court life ranked very high in the eyes of European in 18th and early 19th century. And how can one forget Indian textiles, spices, and some other goods were greatly sought after by the affluent French. Since the days of ancient Roman civilization India was looked as a land of wonder, one that of extreme worlds – strange yet familiar.
In the 18th century, when European military know-how came to be in high demand, the few adventurous French took it as an opportunity to try their luck. As you said, some were bewitched, so once they made a fortune they remained here e.g. Captain De Lannoy or Major General Claude Martin. The ones who went back as traders took home historic manuscripts and albums, like Jean Baptiste Joseph Gentil  and Colonel Antoine-Louis Henri de Polier after mastering local Indian dialect; which implies their lust for something more than just wealth.
MD: Irene Frain in her note for the exhibition states “When they (french) returned to their native land, they chose to become carriers of all the above, firmly convinced by the dream that Indian culture would lead their compatriots, as it had in their own case, to the discovery of the unexpected.” What does she mean?
SB: Note in the same piece she wrote, “They got it in a general manner but with an extra dimension which involved a new approach to life, a new set of aesthetics and a completely new way of thinking that turned their lives upside down”. I guess it meant  travelers whose itinerary was far and beyond their homeland add a new dimension to their lives. They liked to then share it with their compatriots. And it was particularly true with some of the officers who we have put the spotlight on in this exhibition. Irene is a well known French novelist, journalist and historian whose first novel ‘Nabob’ was dedicated to René Marie Madec (one of the officers we’ve talked about here) and dealt with the likes of Claude Martin and Walter Reinhard Sombre in the same. It is a very well researched literary piece and a best seller, too.
MD: Are there other aspects of Indo-French history that needs to be re-explored?
SB: Yes, there are many. Beginning with crafts in France, which were directly influenced by Indian arts. It could be one very big theme from embroideries to printed cloth, food,  floral motive, language, etc. In another one we could cover the latter period of Indian contemporary art and science witnessed in France. Here I’d like to mention Toru Dutt’s novel in French which I guess was the first of its kind in Asia, the Parsis French club created in 1866 called Cercle Littéraire, Rabindranath Tagore’s first painting exhibition in France or for that matter Amrita Sher-Gil’s, national awardee Uday Shankar’s first dance ballet accompanied by his brother Ravi Shankar as a musician, Swami Vivekananda‘s letters written from Paris, not to forget science collaboration of Praful Chandra Ray‘s with his French counterpart Marcelin Berthelot, or J.R.D. Tata‘s schooling, studies and piloting in France, are few well-known examples.
We’ve just begun scratching the surface regarding the historic Indo-French connection. There is indeed much more to re-explore!

Broadly, the first section has portraits of 12 French duos who served Indian rulers – covering most of the Indian territory from present Kerala to Punjab, through Bengal, Awadh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Poona, Hyderabad and Madurai.

The second part shows a selection of Indian sacred texts preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale, the French National Library. Apart from various aspects of Hinduism, the collection also carries Islamic, Buddhist, Tantric, Jain and Parsi manuscripts.

In the third there is a rich and complex theme of ‘Firangee’ paintings – evidence on how foreigners projected themselves during their sojourn in the East, or how they were represented by indigenous miniature artists.

Photo courtesy – Alliance Francaise.

All the above pictures are paintings that represent Indian divinities done by artists of traditional Tanjore art, commissioned by French administrators.


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