Monday, April 18, 2005

My follow-up post on the same thread

HarryTuttle posted on the same thread.
"I'm surprised to learn french culture had this much influence in Bengal, and it's probably just because I don't know well enough the history of my own country. I can't remember the ties France had with India in the 19th century. I thought we had business with Africa and South East Asia mainly. Maybe through the british relationship."

My response:

Yes, the influence of France on Bengal and India is not well-known in the West. I think the primary reason for that is the fact that France was never a political force in India once the French East India Company was defeated by the British East India Company in the late 18th century.

A couple of relevant paragraphs from a web site -

"By the eighteenth century the French became the chief rivals of the English, although the struggle between the two competitors was destined to be brief. Starved and neglected by Paris, the French East India Company experienced great difficulty, while at the same time the British East India Company put down the roots of an empire. The leader of the French enterprise, Joseph Francois Dupleix (1697-1764), a man of extraordinary talent, was convinced that any European company dependent on the unstable Indian courts was in a precarious position. He therefore attempted to construct a system of Indian alliances under the French, but he had the bad fortune to be opposed by Robert Clive (1725-1774), a formidable adversary.

When the Seven Years' War broke out in Europe in 1756, with the French and the English on opposite sides, the nawab, or native ruler of Bengal, unsuccessfully tried to ally himself with the French. Clive then moved against the nawab. Events were decided by the Battle of Plassey on June 23, 1757. As a result of his victory, Clive was able to eliminate French influence, and the British no longer had European commercial rivals in India. It was fundamentally British sea power that helped to perpetuate British dominance in India during the mid-eighteenth century. ..."

Even after that the revolutionary Indian kings and political leaders who fought against the British were influenced by the French a lot. Tipu Sultan was an official member of the Jacobin Club. In West Bengal, there are cities like Chandernagore where you can still find traces of the short-lived French rule.

Though the trading and political ties (in a colonial context) between India and France never really took off, culturally it's a different story. I always wanted to research and trace the history of these cultural ties more closely, but have not been able to do that yet. However, the influence of French modern literature, symbolism and impressionist school of painting on modern Bengali literature and painting is well researched and documented.

I am not sure if there were strong cultural ties throughout the period between late 18th century (when the French lost to the British politically) and late 19th century when the Bengali cultural renaissance really started. It's possible that Bengalis re-discovered the French masters through English translations and then started learning French all over again. Most of the Bengali intellectual and cultural leaders were well-versed in French and quite a few them did a great job in translating major works of French literature in Bengali and making them widely available. I grew up reading Bengali translations of Maupassant, Hugo, Dumas, Zola, Flaubert, Baudelaire,Verleine and Rimbaud and remember quoting them extensively in my pretentious high-school Bengali essays. It has always been a much smaller world than we think :)

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