January 18, 2020
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Polier's Wonder

A Franco-Swiss who took to Persian, and also took two Indian wives

Polier's Wonder
Polier's Wonder
A European Experience Of The Mughal Orient: The 'Ijaz-i-Arsalani' (Persian Letters, 1773-1778) Of Antoine-Louis Henri Polier
By Muzaffar Alam By Seema Alavi
OUP Rs750,Pages:422
Antonie Polier is scarcely a household name, either in India or Europe. This contemporary of the celebrated Claude Martin, and of Sir William Jones, is hardly remembered either in Switzerland (where he was born in 1741), or in India (where he lived most of his life), or in France (where he was assassinated in 1795). Students of 18th-century Indian history may know him at best as the author of an account of Shah Alam II and his court. The task of this book is to bring to life the extraordinary world of Polier, who was everything from collector to mercenary, and from Orientalist to bon vivant. The story is simple enough at one level. Polier leaves Europe at the age of 16 to join an uncle who is serving the English Company in India. After a brief period of service in the south, he is then active in Bihar and Bengal, and enjoys close relations with Robert Clive, Warren Hastings and Eyre Coote, among the major Company servants of the period. But Polier’s relations with the English are complicated by his own Franco-Swiss identity. Despite the fact that he is a Protestant, some residual suspicion hangs over him. So, finding his avenues with the Company blocked, he takes up service with first the Nawab of Awadh and then the Mughal emperor. Eventually, having amassed a fortune as well as a considerable collection of paintings and calligraphy, Polier returns to Europe in 1788. He decides to move back to post-revolution France, and buys an estate near Avignon. It is here that he is killed in February 1795. The man who survived and flourished 32 years as a mercenary in India is ironically struck down a mere seven years after his return to Europe.

The world that Polier lived in while he was in India was a complex one. Though he never converted to Islam, he had become highly ‘acculturated’ by the time he moved to Faizabad, and had two Indian wives, Jugnu Begam and Zinat Begam. His personal habits had also adapted to life in India, and he could apparently speak Hindustani (what he calls urdu zaban) well, and also had some command over Persian. Besides his numerous writings in French and English, he left behind two letter-books in Persian, in which we have copies of his correspondence with a vast number of people, from humble domestic attendants to the great men of the times such as Najaf Khan. These letters were not written by Polier but by his scribes, notably a certain Kayastha from Bihar called Kishan Sahai. Still Polier commissioned, read and approved the letters drafted by these munshis, and to this extent they are ‘his’ letters. It was, of course, a bit pretentious of him to call the collection Ijaz-i-Arsalani, after the major prose work of Amir Khusrau, Ijaz-i-Khusravi (‘Khusrau’s Wonder’). But modesty was not an attribute of men like William Jones either.

Alam and Alavi have provided us a subtle and valuable source for the social, economic and cultural history of the early colonial period. The bulk of the book is made up of translations of letters from the Awadh period of Polier’s life, which while not literal in character are still close enough to the originals. From these, we get glimpses of Polier’s love of Indian pickles and spicy food, but we also can see his vast network of trade and patronage which involves a number of Bengali subordinates like Manik Ram Ganguli, as well as painters such as Mehr Chand. Their introduction, while exploring a number of facets of the materials, still leaves the possibility open of a further look into Polier’s world from the point of view of a history of mentalities. I was particularly struck by the letters to his two wives, written with all the patriarchal authority of a late Mughal notable. This is all the more ironical, for on his return to Europe in 1788, Polier left both women behind in India and married a well-connected European noblewoman.

Polier’s services to European Orientalism were several, both by way of acquiring the first written version of the Vedas to circulate in Europe, and in interpreting a number of other texts for his readers in Britain and elsewhere. He did all this while ensuring that his own pockets were never empty, and was a rather successful careerist. The authors of this book somewhat downplay this less-than-sympathetic aspect of his life, and one gets the feeling that they have succumbed to his raffish charm.

Polier’s second letter-book still remains to be explored, and there is also the matter of his dispersed art-collections. This book whets the reader’s appetite, and we look forward to the publication of a companion volume with the other materials.

(Sanjay Subrahmanyam has written Vasco da Gama: Life and Times, among other books on Indian history.)

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