‘art and soul
Between Paris & Lahore

Feuillet, occupant of a high office in the French foreign ministry, was inordinately fond of the Fables of La Fontaine. In 1835 he sent several copies of a French edition of the book to Lahore for having them illustrated by an Indian painter, writes B. N. Goswamy

La Fontaine’s fable of “The two Rats, the Fox, and the Egg”. Illustrated by Imam Bakhsh Lahori; ca. 1837
La Fontaine’s fable of “The two Rats, the Fox, and the Egg”. Illustrated by Imam Bakhsh Lahori; ca. 1837.

IT is not often that we realise how works of art, especially extensive series of works of art, come together. Or the long and undreamt-of channels that they sometimes pass through before they land at a place, or acquire the shape in which we know them.

The thought came to me sharply upon seeing, recently, an exhibition of illustrations of the famous Fables of the 17th century French poet, La Fontaine, by the 19th century Indian painter who used to sign himself "Imam Bakhsh Lahori." The whole matter is so engrossing, and in some manner so dramatic, that one should perhaps acquaint oneself first with the dramatis personae involved in it. Among them would be:

Jean de La Fontaine:

17th century French poet, author of a celebrated book of Fables

Francois Bernier: French writer who travelled through the Mughal Empire in the 17th century and through whom, probably, La Fontaine got to learn about India

Bastien Felix Feuillet de Conches: 19th century French Baron, collector and great enthusiast of La Fontaine’s Fables

Jean-Francois Allard: 19th century French General employed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh

Imam Bakhsh Lahori: Indian painter active in the Punjab, during the times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh

Jean-Marie Lafont:

Contemporary scholar, involved in researching and writing on the French connection with the Punjab of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s times

There are many others whose names should figure in this somewhat unusual tale, but they must at the moment remain unnamed. What is necessary, however, is to mention a location: the Musee Jean de La Fontaine at Chateau-Thierry. For this is where the collection of Imam Bakhsh’s illustrations of La Fontaine’s Fables is now proudly housed.

The story goes a little like this. Feuillet, the collector, occupant of a high office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in France, was inordinately fond of painting and drawing, and of the Fables of La Fontaine, which he had always admired.

Keen on having the Fables illustrated by as wide a range of artists as possible — drawn from different cultures, so as to represent "the sum of all the tastes and styles of a time" — he chanced to meet in 1835 General Allard, on leave from Ranjit Singh’s service but due to return to Lahore the next year. And he took the opportunity to send through him to Lahore several copies of a French edition of La Fontaine’s Fables for having them illustrated by an Indian painter, an authentic "inhabitant of Mogul," in other words.

The work was assigned to Imam Bakhsh, whom General Allard knew to be a gifted painter, and was carried out even after Allard’s death under the care of another French general, Ventura, who had the French Fables roughly interpreted in Persian for the benefit of Imam Bakhsh.

Once finished, the paintings travelled back to France, were greatly admired by Feuillet, and became a valued part of his family’s possession till his death. This situation changed only in 1968 when they were, finally, incorporated into the collections of the Museum dedicated to La Fontaine at Chateau-Thierry, his birthplace. It is there that the French scholar, Jean-Marie Lafont, tracked and studied them.

In the above, indecently hasty, account, nearly everything has remained unsaid about La Fontaine’s book, and Imam Bakhsh’s paintings: the diverse sources of La Fontaine’s Fables, including such time-honoured Sanskrit texts as the Panchatantra, and others, that had travelled to Europe through translations in Arabic and Persian; the French fascination for the ‘Land of the Moguls’ as India was then virtually taken to be; the wit and the wisdom of the stories which have earned them the esteem which they continue to enjoy to this day, and certainly did in Feuillet’s times; the engagement of the French generals with the artists then active in Lahore and whom they commissioned to draw portraits of themselves; the distinguished work of Imam Bakhsh who had access to some European paintings but who had to fall back upon the resource of his own imagination for providing visual parallels to the delightful tales.

But of the work of Imam Bakhsh, "both bright and delicate, precious and sparkling," in which "the skies are gold and the waters silver", some other time perhaps. There is La Fontaine’s charming story that the painting by Imam Bakhsh here tells. It speaks of two rats that found an egg but before they could settle down to enjoy it; there appeared close to the scene a fox from which they wished to hide their find. Several devices were thought of, but the one that worked for them was for one rat to lie on his back holding the egg, and for the other to drag him by the tail – and naturally the egg – quickly to safety. The moral? In La Fontaine’s words: "Who shall, after this, declare/ That beasts devoid of reason are?"