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The French Connection

The Bengalis and the French share many similarities ranging from their love for leisurely talking, politics and football, and Rammohan Roy is credited with initiating the cultural bond between the two races.

Parthapratim Mandal
Sun, Jun 9 2013

Illustration: Rajat Dey

About Parthapratim

As a teacher and freelance journalist, I write articles on socio-cultural and literary issues. Recently my book “কথার ফোটোগ্রাফি” (An introduction to Jacques Prévert and translation of his poems from French to Bengali) was published.

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It is a popular belief that there are certain similarities between the Bengalis and the French. Apart from the many amusing anecdotes about their cultural likeness, who can deny that the Bengalis in common with the French love to spend a lot of time in আড্ডা, and that they show much interest in politics and football.

Actually the intercultural communication between the French and the Bengalis is not something new. The reception of the Indian culture in France began way back in the Middle Ages and more directly in the 17th century with Racine’s play Alexandre, Boyer’s play Porus, 13 tales from ‘Panchatantra’ and tales from the ‘Jatakas’.

Now when we come to the reverse scene i.e. the reception of the French culture in Bengal, it too started long before Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1809-1831), who learnt French at David Drummond's Dhurramtallah Academy, translated De la Liberté by Maupertuis and whose disciples, the Young Bengal, celebrated the July Revolution in France at the Town Hall in Calcutta on 10 December, 1830. It also started long before Toru Dutt (1856-1877) of the famous Dutta family of Rambagan in North Calcutta wrote the novel Le Journal de Mademoiselle d’Anvers in French, published in 1879 by the famous publishing house of Paris, Didier or before she brought out A Sheaf Gleamed in French Fields - translation of 165 poems of about 70 French poets, or who along with her sister Aru Dutt immensely contributed to the French literature in Bengal.

Historically, it was with Rammohan Roy (1772-1833) that the cultural bond between these two races was first established, the strength of which has only increased with the passage of time. Rammohan Roy, the first social and religious reformer of Bengal was a great admirer of French culture. He was deeply shocked when asked to get a visa for his visit to France during his stay in England. He sent a letter to the French Foreign Minister saying:

“…. I have entertained a wish to visit a country…so richly adorned by the cultivation of arts and sciences and above all blessed by the possession of a free constitution.”

He went to Paris in the autumn of 1832 and was received by the Société Asiatique as an honorary member. He also accepted the invitation for the banquet by King Louis Philippe. In the Anglo-Hindu School which he founded, the syllabus included Voltaire’s writings and his keen interest in the July Revolution was well known.

It was, therefore, with this great Bengali rationalist started the cultural link which was further advanced by other great personalities like Dwarkanath Tagore who went to France in 1842, or, Girish Chandra Ghosh, the famous Bengali playwright who composed his ‘Jyasa ka Tyasa’ based on Molière’s L’amour le médecin and which culminated in the great poetic tradition and interpretation of Michael Madhusudan Dutta.

Not only in the realm of literature, but in other fields also the 19th century Bengali creativity was greatly inspired by the acquaintance with the French. Voltaire and Rousseau found ready acceptance, as was evident from Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s admiration and faith in Rousseau’s Du contrat social in his essay ‘Samya’. In his analysis of the character of Krishna (Krishnacharita) this Bengali novelist was evidently inspired by Auguste Comte whose positivism gave rise to a new school of thought in mid-19th century.

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