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Tuesday, Dec 10, 2019

The French lieutenants’ paintings

What were French soldiers doing in India in the 18th century? This exhibition holds a clue

art-and-culture Updated: Nov 29, 2019 17:08 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Paramita Ghosh
Hindustan Times
, features French soldier and man of influence, Claude Martin (on a couch wearing a red coat).
, features French soldier and man of influence, Claude Martin (on a couch wearing a red coat).(Photo courtesy: BNF)
         

The Frenchman, Claude Martin, was the quintessential 18th century soldier of fortune. He would run with the hare and hunt with the hound, counting among his patrons, the French East India Company, and when its luck turned, the British.

A painting, Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match, featuring Claude Martin, hangs at the ‘Rajas, Nawabs and Firangees’, an exhibition on 12 Indian rulers and their French-speaking officers, at the National Museum in New Delhi. It shows the tension and the traffic between the Indians, the French and the British. Everyone was on the make.

The exhibition, put up by the Alliance Francaise-India, in collaboration with the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF) till December 15, also shows that the French were quite conscious of preserving a pictorial legacy.

“The 18th century is an uncertain period for the artists and ateliers in India. Mughal patronage is no longer there. The artists find few patrons. Claude Martin and other French-speaking lieutenants who come to India at that time are charmed by the Indian exotica, and since there isn’t a way to take a selfie, they engage the readily available artist to do the job,” says Bishwadeep Moitra, the exhibition’s creative director.

Antoine-Louis Polier, another soldier, also commissioned paintings by the artist Mir Chand, who frequently reworked European paintings.

(L-R) Curator Samuel Berthet and creative director, Bishwadeep Moitra, at the exhibition ‘Rajas, Nawabs and Firangees’, at the National Museum, Delhi.
(L-R) Curator Samuel Berthet and creative director, Bishwadeep Moitra, at the exhibition ‘Rajas, Nawabs and Firangees’, at the National Museum, Delhi. ( Biplov Bhuyan/HT PHOTO )

“The art of copying is part of the artistic tradition. It requires skill; every artist introduces his variations,” says Samuel Berthet, festival curator. Berthet, who is also the director of Alliance Francaise, Hyderabad, introduces us to various manuscripts, paintings of medicinal plants and ethnographic studies of men and women adorned in rich fabrics that Frenchmen collected and sent back home.

In the 18th century, India was the New World. And the French were an important part of the India story.

Q and A with Samuel Berthet, festival curator

The days of colonies are over. Why should Indians be interested in an exhibition like this?

To see this exhibition as being just about colonial history would be to miss something big. Most of India was not under colonial rule during the first half of the period this exhibition covers. French soldiers brought back paintings, manuscripts, information about religious particularities, maps.... So, to understand today’s world, it is important to know the knowledge that built the Indian subcontinent and how it circulated and entered France. A lot of India has been in France in terms of know-how, fashion, taste and text. Those officers contributed to the circulation of both Indian knowledge and knowledge about India in France.

The Battle of Buxar (1764) meant an end of French ambitions in India. Who were the French still staying on in India?

They were often half soldiers and half mercenaries, sometime half merchants, half engineers... they had fingers in many pies. Some had Indian wives. Many soldiers were hoping to get commissioned by the French crown to fight the British, taking advantage of their foothold in the armies of Indian kings (a few of them eventually rising to the top as generals of an Indian army). France itself was going through a lot of instability, so the hope of support was mainly wishful thinking. Besides soldiers, there were also some explorers, botanists and scholars.

The exhibition has more than 150 paintings, books on botany, history, coins from the BNF but not many of them are originals.

There are eight very rare original pieces at the exhibition. From the BNF, we showcase a selection of high-resolution images from its amazing collection of nearly 3,000 manuscripts from India and 50 painting albums. The restoration of some of those manuscripts and albums took more than three years, and many cannot even travel. Those which can, can do so only at a very high cost, and one ends up watching only a folio in a glass box. Hence, those manuscripts and images from the BNF were never exhibited in India, most of them not even in France.

The exceptional agreement the Alliance Francaise signed with the BNF allowed us to get extremely high definition of the pictures exhibited, which even allow us to see details that a normal display under a glass box would not. Yet, I hope that this initiative will encourage both Indian and French governments to support more such exhibitions displaying both originals and high-resolution copies curated by experts such as Kapil Raj, Jérôme Petit, Selvam Thorez, Dhir Srangi and Mrinalini Sil here. Besides, the BNF is taking a huge step in promoting more exchange of our common treasures under the digital platform called Shared Heritage.