Going native in India
B. N. Goswamy on the contribution of Antoine Louis Polier, an Indophile

‘An entertainment for Colonel Polier’. Late Mughal work at Awadh by Mihrchand. ca. 1780
‘An entertainment for Colonel Polier’. Late Mughal work at Awadh by Mihrchand. ca. 1780

WHILE I was addressing the Swiss-Indian Chamber of Commerce in Zurich, the theme shifted to the difference between observing another culture from outside, and making the effort to understand it from within, by trying to identify with it.

I pulled out a reproduction of an 18th century painting from the collection of late Prince Sadruddin Agha Khan that I had published several years ago. It showed a prince-like figure seated on a high sofa, smoking a huqqa, dressed in a long jama and an Awadh type goshpech turban, watching on a marble terrace two kathak dancers while a group of accompanying musicians played in the background. The painting, which elicited a certain, though not a great deal of, interest till I mentioned that the royal-looking personage seated in it, in lavish Asian style, was no Indian prince: he was a Swiss engineer, Colonel Antoine Louis Polier, who spent nearly 30 years of his life in India, from 1757 to 1788, and had in so many ways ‘gone native’.

Then suddenly everyone perked up and took notice. Most of them had probably never even heard of Colonel Polier; and certainly none of them had ever seen a painting of him.

That was not the place to pursue the career of Polier beyond a point, but the man remains a fascinating study. A military engineer, an architect, a shrewd businessman, a politician, all at the same time, Polier’s was a palpable presence in India.

The Mughal Empire, under a weakened ruler, was breaking up then; men of the like of Warren Hastings had become great centres of power; disorder bordering upon anarchy loomed over major parts of northern India; European adventurers and mercenaries were everywhere.

In this confused and depressing scene, a man with the abilities and the determination of Polier knew that he could carve out a role for himself. It would take too long to go into all the positions he came to occupy, all the men of power he consorted with or knew well: the Mughal emperor, Shah Alam, himself; Shuja-ud-daulah and Asaf-ud-daulah, the two Nawabs of Awadh under whom he served; Warren Hastings and the scholar William Jones; Maharaja Pratap Singh of Jaipur, Lalit Sah of Garhwal, the Nawab of Farrukhabad, the Raja of Benares.

The list is endless. But, most interestingly, he also kept up a sustained correspondence — in Persian, one might add, with the help of his munshis — with moneylenders, painters and bookbinders, seal-engravers and furniture mistris. The letters he wrote — prodigious in number, many of which have now been published — make most absorbing reading.

As one who came to India to make a fortune, he ended up acquiring wealth and power and prestige. And titles, such as Iftikhar ul-Mulk (the pride of the country), Imtiaz ud-Daula (the distinction of the state), Arsalan-i Jang (the brave lion on the field of battle), the last conferred upon him by the Mughal Emperor himself. Polier’s was, as I said earlier, a palpable presence.

But, politics and the pursuit of wealth/power apart, it is his curiosity about India — land, people, learning, crafts: everything, in short — that interest me most. To be sure, there were other Europeans and Englishmen whose interests extended, like his, to these matters.

But Polier’s passion, and the desire to understand India at its own terms, is truly impressive. There appears, in the manner he went about collecting works while in India, great sensitivity towards the syncretic and assimilative nature of the culture that had emerged by this time.

There are notes about how he went about translating into French the Ramayana and Bhagavadagita with the help of his Indian pandit, Ramachandra, from whom he also "wanted to understand the complete system" of Hindu beliefs and thought.

Poetry, history, philosophy, medicine, nothing seemed to be beyond the ken of his interests. He took back, when he returned to Europe, enormous quantities of books and manuscripts, most of which finally landed up in major libraries of Europe: in Paris, London, Berlin, Cambridge and, of course, Lausanne in Switzerland, from where his family came.