France was last of the major European powers of the 17th century – most notably British, but also Dutch, Danish, and Portuguese – to enter the East India trade, establishing its first factory in Surat in 1668. French India, formally known as the Établissements Français dans l’Inde, eventually constituted primarily of establishments in Pondicherry, Karikal and Yanaon on the Coromandel Coast, Mahe on the Malabar Coast and Chandernagor (now Chandanngar) in Bengal.

Joseph François Dupleix, the governor-general of French India, despite having little support from his superiors in the company and the French government unwilling to provoke the British, harboured the dream of a French empire in India, leading to many skirmishes and battles between the British and the French.

Dupleix was eventually dismissed, but the battles continued, one of the most notable being the Battle of Plassey (in which the French allied with the ruling Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah), until numerous defeats forced the French colonial powers to continue under the shadow of the British empire with most of its establishments losing much of their former glory.

The independence of India on 15th August, 1947 led to a complete disintegration of the French India – with a complete and last merger with the union of India happening as late as 1954. It is in this context that Francophone literature exists in India.

“…that child of Bengal, so admirably and strangely gifted, Hindu of race and tradition, English by education, French by heart: poet in English, prose writer in French,” wrote James Darmesteter, the French critic, referring to the works of Toru Dutt, the first Indian writer to have written a novel in French, and thought to be the first Indian woman writer to have written a novel in English. After her death at the age of 21, her father discovered her manuscripts and her works were published posthumously.

It was, unsurprisingly, met with scepticism and sharp criticism in Europe, but French critics were more willing to engage with Dutt’s works than their British counterparts, some even praising what they believed to be a perfect synthesis of East and West. Aside from Toru Dutt’s two novels, Indian writing in French is composed almost entirely of verse, short stories, essays and plays.

It is also in this context that it is perhaps interesting to read French literature – especially poetry – of the time and its imagination of India. It reveals what Dutt might have been reading about India in French at a time when she herself was writing about France (her novel is set in France with no Indian characters), and brings to surface not just the obvious colonial intentions but also how this problematic encounter with India informed the imagination and works of some of the most important writers and poets of France.

Paul Verlaine, for example, wrote an entire poem on Savitri, a character most famously described in the Vana Parva of Mahabharata, admiring her stoicism and impassivity:

“To save her husband, Savitri made the wish
To stand for three whole days, three whole nights,
Standing, without moving her legs, chest or eyelids:
Rigid, as Vyaça says, like a stake.

Neither, Surya, your cruel rays, nor languor
That Chandra spreads at midnight on the hills
Could weaken, by their sublime efforts,
The thought and the flesh of the big-hearted woman.

Let oblivion encircle us, black and dreary assassin,
Or let Envy, with bitter traits, target us.
Like Savitri, let’s be impassive, but
like her, in our soul let’s have a great purpose.”

Victor Hugo, in sharp contrast to Verlaine, writes of the mysterious and dangerous well of India, revealing both his fascination and fear of the “other”, reminiscent also of the French phrase l’appel du vide (call of the void, an intuitive urge to jump into a void):

“Well of India! Tombs! Constellated monuments! 
You whose interior offers troubled glances 
Only a swarm of steps and ramps, 
Cold dungeons, corridors where lamps radiate, 
Beams where the spider has stretched his long son, 
Blocks sketching sinister profiles everywhere, 
Granite roofs, pierced like a frail canvas, 
By which the eye sees some deep star shine, 
And chaos of walls, rooms, landings,

In front of your depths
Like on an abyss or on a furnace, 
Scary Babels dreamed by Piranesi! 
Enter if you dare!
That destiny, this lair inhabited by our fears, 
Where the soul hears, lost, in dreadful labyrinths,
In the depths, through the shadow, with a thousand deaf noises, 
In an unknown gulf, fall the stream of days!”

Stephane Mallarme, the symbolist poet whose works impacted the radical art movements such as Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, etc., wrote an elegy to Vasco de Gama to celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of his voyage to India in “Au seul souci de voyager” (“To life’s sole goal of sailing onwards”), highlighting the soul’s need to march on despite struggles and disappointments, ignoring (or celebrating) the age of colonialism ushered in by the discoveries of De Gama:

“For the sake of travelling
Beyond a splendid and dim India
Let this salutation be the messenger
Of time, cape that your prow doubles

As on some low yardarm
Plunging with the caravel
Foaming always in ecstasy
A bird makes a new announcement

Crying monotonously
Without the wheel changing
A useless field
Night, despair, and jewels

By its song reflected in
The smile of the pale Vasco.”

For Charles Baudelaire, India becomes an unreachable point in life, always too far to grasp, inspired perhaps by his own sea-voyage to Calcutta which he never completed, choosing instead to disembark at Mauritius to return to France.

“The innocent paradise, full of furtive pleasures,
Is it already farther than India and China?
Can we recall it with plaintive cries,
And animate it again with a silver voice,
The innocent paradise full of furtive pleasures?”

Blaise Cendrars, the modernist French poet, creates a mix of his own mind, travelling, and the train towards the city that is now known as Mumbai in his poem titled “Bombay Express”:

“The life I led
Prevents me from committing suicide
All leap
Women ride under the wheels
With loud cries
The fan-shaped models are at the gate of the stations.
I have music under my fingernails.
(… )
This year or next year
Art criticism is as stupid as Esperanto
Goodbye goodbye

I was born in this city
And my son, too
Whose forehead is like his mother’s vagina
There are thoughts that startle the buses
I do not read books that are only in libraries
Beautiful A B C of the world
Bon Voyage!

I’m taking you 
You who laugh at vermilion.”

Victor Segalen, the French physician-poet-explorer, before composing his masterpiece about the Steles of China, wrote a play recounting another version of the life of Buddha Sakyamuni to enlightenment, featuring prominently the female character of Krisha Gautami. Apollinaire mentions Shakuntala (as Sacontala) as the symbol of loyal love in his long poem “La Chanson du Mal-Aimé”.

These are only a few examples of the role India played in the French poetic imagination at a particular time in history, but is interesting to note that there is no one India that emerges as a coherent whole out of these (or any) works, and it’s just as well. As always, it is important to remember – indeed, one must never forget – that poems reveal much more about the poets than the subject they seem to be about.