Fifty years ago, he came to India, bringing a bit of France with him. Now, in 1999, he has returned to France, taking with him a bit of India. When Michel Postel arrived in India in 1949 as a pharmacologist, he brought the latest French drugs for the newly independent India and its fledgling pharmaceuticals industry. And on his return to France, he donated his entire art collection to a museum dedicated to Indian and Chinese art.
Located in Biarritz, a small town on the southwestern tip of France, with a collection of over 1,600 pieces from India and the surrounding regions, the Muse Asiatica is the largest private museum of its kind in Europe. It is now also a cultural stop in the itinerary of millions of tourists who throng the beautiful beaches of this lovely town in the Basque country.
The collection, which dates from the 2nd century BC through to the 19th century, is drawn from an equally wide geographical spread-from Samarkand in today's Afghanistan and Tibet to the southern tip of India. Postel, now a Buddhist, has collected various images of the Buddha while a large proportion of his pieces relate to Buddhism and have originated in Bihar, Nepal, Tibet and China.
Unusually, Postel also developed an interest in ear-rings. There are over 1,000 ear-rings in his collection, sourced from all over the country. "During my studies, I noticed ear-rings were an extremely important part of Indian culture. Whether it is a god or a goddess, a king or a queen, everyone had lovely ear-rings. I was really fascinated by the originality of those designs," he says.
Besides, the ear-rings also helped Postel determine the place and date of origin of the sculptures. "You can very clearly differentiate between ear-rings of different ages and different places very easily. And you can use them for very precise dating," he says. Which is what he did for a Yakshi statuette. "Some scientists were saying that the statue belonged to the Mauryan age in 2nd century BC, but I noticed the ear-rings were clearly from much later. I pointed it out and also showed them comparisons with other ear-rings of the Mauryan age and the particular design on the Yakshi which came into use centuries later. My point was accepted by the archaeologists," he recounts.
Indian stamps too feature prominently in Postel's collection. Almost all the stamps issued in post-independence India are on display here as also are a large number of handicraft items sourced from across India. Though Postel is reluctant to value the items, he estimates to have spent almost 4 million francs on the project.
Postel was first attracted to India even as the country was fighting for its independence. He was so impressed by Mahatma Gandhi and his ahimsa campaign for independence that he decided to shift to India. "I really felt I had to stay in India and that it was my destiny to go to the country," says Postel, who set up shop in Bombay, a city where he'd spend the next 50 years.
When he arrived, Postel wanted to make cheap drugs available to the Indian people, whose purchasing power just after independence could not enable them to buy foreign medicines. So Postel set up Franco-Indian Pharmaceuticals, a company that would supply drugs to doctors in Bombay. But the first years proved tough. "Within two years, I knew I had failed. I'd sell a medicine for Re 1, but my competition would sell it for 50 paise. I was out of business," says he. A few doctor friends then advised him to get some of the latest western drugs into the market. "They told me there were enough rich Indians-industrialists, landlords and former royalty-who used imported medicine and for whom money was of no importance. I was convinced that was the market I should tap," he says.
With the help of his friends in the French drugs manufacturer, Roussell, Postel imported a newly-introduced drug from France and within two weeks had his whole stock sold out. He then convinced Roussell to manufacture the same drug in India, not just for the local market but also for exports. Roussell overcame an initial reluctance to grant Postel licence to manufacture the drug in India.
Since then, Postel has never had to look back. Today, his company clocks a turnover of about Rs 160 crore, with manufacturing facilities in the four metros. But business didn't remain Postel's sole interest in the country; he was equally attracted to its culture. He began travelling extensively around the country, discovering its rich heritage and culture. "It was way back in the '50s, during my first trip to Himachal Pradesh, that I really became aware of what a rich culture was hidden in this remote Himalayan state," he recalls.
In fact, so enamoured was he by the state that he visited it every year for 20 years even as he toured other parts of the country. "I was fortunate enough to see a very large cross-section of the Indian civilisation, right from the Indus Valley and the Gangetic valley civilisations to post-Mughal India. I could study the evolution of culture and understand India even better," Postel says.
And it was during these sojourns that Postel came across priceless pieces, which he began collecting, though most of his collection was done overseas. "I'd mostly buy in places like New York and London where there's a sizeable collection. And due to my extensive experience, I'd often know more about the piece than the dealer and hence I could get some good bargains," he says.
Besides collecting art, Postel also took to writing. To date, he's written several books, ranging from the iconography of Ganesh through the last 2,000 years to recent ones on the hidden antique treasures of Himachal and the tribal art of Bastar.
But why choose Biarritz as the museum site? "People outside Paris really have no exposure to Indian or Asian cultures nor do they have any access to it," says Postel. "So we decided to locate it here, so that people could know more about Indian culture."
The museum today has become a centre of Indian culture in the region. Not only France, the museum is a lure for parts of Spain as well, which is less than 25 km from Biarritz and which doesn't have a museum on Indian art either. "We use a lot of agarbatti in the museum and with the muted lights, it really resembles a temple. Many people have told us they visit the place for the atmosphere as much as for the collection," says Postel.
Postel intends to make the museum a cultural centre. This Halloween, he organised a contest in which children were first asked to look at the Himalayan masks on display in the museum, then draw them by memory. "This would create a genuine interest in India and its culture among the younger generation," he hopes. Postel is now planning to organise exhibitions of Indian and Chinese paintings. And there is another "pet project". "I would like to bring some famous Indian artisans to visit the museum, so that people can actually see them at work while they create their masterpieces right here," he says.