|The French Institute of Pondicherry is emerging as a major player in Indo-French cooperation.|
AT THE FRENCH Institute of Pondicherry.
AT Institut Francais de Pondichery (IFP) or the French Institute of Pondicherry, tradition meets modernity with ease. It is here that researcher S. Sambanda Sivachariar, with his flowing silvery beard and a shawl thrown around his shoulders, carefully reads palm-leaf manuscripts and copies, edits and publishes them; it is here that about 1,150 transcripts of palm-leaf manuscripts on paper are being digitised; it is here that a French researcher has made a CD-ROM on "Thevaram", a Tamil devotional work of the 7th to 9th century A.D.; and it is here that a big project is under way on the Historical Atlas of South India.
The Institute houses about 8,500 palm-leaf manuscripts of inestimable value, the majority of them relating to Saiva Siddhantha, a Hindu school of philosophy extant in Tamil Nadu. The building also houses 1.50 lakh photographs, mostly on the temples of South India; stone sculptures; bronzes; and cave-rock paintings.
The IFP was founded in 1955 subsequent to the "de facto transfer agreement" of the French establishments in India, signed in October 1954. It is a financially autonomous institution under the jurisdiction of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The largest of the 26 research centres connected with this Ministry, it involves itself with South and South-East Asia.
The IFP celebrated its golden jubilee in 2005. The theme of the celebrations was "From Tradition to Modernity".
Under the dynamic leadership of Dr. Jean Pierre Muller, its present Director, the IFP has reached a higher plane of activity. Muller wants to give the organisation visibility and be a major player in Indo-French cooperation. "The IFP is a tool for cooperation between India and France. We would like the IFP to be more and more involved in the cultural and scientific issues of India," he says. He adds: "In its 50 years of history, the IFP has become an immense reservoir of knowledge on the cultures, societies and environment of India, and has gathered within its walls valuable documents and research material." After he took over in February 2003, he has given emphasis to the execution of projects that are of relevance to India. The IFP has three basic missions: research, acquiring expertise and training personnel. The IFP does not offer French language courses. Its three Departments conduct research in Indology, ecology and social sciences.
The idea to establish an institute in Pondicherry was mooted for the first time in 1891 by Capt. Martinet, founder of the Alliance Francais there. Pondicherry was a French colony then. During the Second World War, Paul Josselin, Head of the Department of State Education in France proposed it again. In 1949 it received political support from the Assembly of the French Union.
The idea surfaced again at a meeting attended by French Ambassador to India M. Stanislas Ostrorog, historian K.M. Panikkar and Dr. Jean Filliozat, who held the Chair in Indian Studies at the College de France, Paris. Jawaharlal Nehru was keen that Pondicherry should become an "open window to France", after it joined the Union of India. An agreement was signed on October 21, 1954 for creating "establishments or institutions intended for studies preparing for diplomas in French language and civilisation, for scientific research and for the diffusion of the French culture in the field of letters, in arts and sciences." The Treaty of Cessation of French Territories to India (de facto transfer), signed on May 28, 1956, established the IFP in its mission of research.
Dr. Muller provided an interesting sidelight on how Pondicherry bagged the institute. A French institute existed then in Vietnam, which was a French colony. When the French were ousted from Vietnam, they wanted an alternative place to re-locate the institute and the choice fell on Pondicherry. The premises on Rue Saint Louis in the town was chosen for it.
The Institute was officially inaugurated on March 21, 1955. Dr. Jean Filliozat, an eminent Indologist, became its first Director. He simultaneously headed the "Ecole francaise D' Extreme-Orient" (EFEO), also located in Pondicherry. A medical doctor by training, Dr. Filliozat was a multi-faceted personality. He was a Sanskritist and was interested in Saiva Siddhanta and Ayurveda.
The IFP soon had three departments: a Department of French Language and Literature; a Department of Sciences to cater to India's eagerness for scientific knowledge to build a modern nation; a Department of Indology, dear to Dr. Filliozat.
The Department of French Language and Literature was closed in 1958 after the teaching of the French language and literature was assigned to Alliance Francaise.
The Department of Science prepared maps on different types of vegetation in India under the direction of Pierre Legris, an engineer from the French Forestry Commission, who had served in the colonies. Legris subsequently became the second Director of the IFP, from 1978 to 1988.
The Department of Ecology, which functioned directly under Dr. Filliozat, began collecting palm-leaf manuscripts, raised a treasure of photographs of temples in South India, bronzes, stone sculptures and water-colours of old buildings in Pondicherry, and began to translate and edit, with notes and commentaries, Sanskrit and Tamil manuscripts.
In 1988, Jean-Pierre Pascal, who became the next IFP Director, reorganised the institute to have three departments: Ecology; Indology; and Social Sciences, a new department.
Apart from these departments, the IFP now has a Laboratory for Applied Informatics and Geomatics which prepares maps with the help of satellite images, works on geographical information systems, and does multi-media promotion. The laboratory has a collection of 3,000 maps. Prof. Meher-Homji contributed immensely to preparing vegetation maps. Besides, the IFP has a well-stocked library of 58,000 books and 900 journals.
The three Departments undertake collaborative projects with universities, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the National Remote-Sensing Agency (NRSA), the Forest Departments of Kerala and Karnataka, and French agencies such as the IRD, the CIRAD and Agence Nationale de la Recherche. The funding agencies include the European Union, the World Bank, the International Labour Organisation, the Wellcome Trust and the Ford Foundation.
DR. JEAN PIERRE MULLER, Director, with a set of palm-leaf manuscripts.
Although French academics were interested in Indological studies from the early 19th century, they were essentially attracted to Sanskrit works from North India. It was only from 1955 that attention was paid to Sanskrit works from South India, particularly those of Agama literature, thanks to Dr. Filliozat's efforts. Agamas are the scriptures of Saiva Siddhanta. Dr. Filliozat focussed his attention on collecting manuscripts of Saiva texts, especially that of Saiva Siddhanta. Indeed, the IFP and the EFEO became the fora where scholarly exchanges took place between Indian pundits and Western Sanskritists.
According to Sivachariar, senior research assistant, who has been working for the past 39 years in the Indology Department, about 65 per cent of these palm-leaf manuscripts deal with Saiva agamas, commentaries on them, rituals, yoga and so on. Others relate to Dharma Sastra, Vyakarana Sastra, Mimamsa Sastra, Kavya Sastra, jyotisha (astrology), Siddha medicine and so on. The principal collector of the manuscripts here was Pandit N.R. Bhatt.
In recognition of their importance, the Saiva manuscripts at the IFP were, in 2005, deemed a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) "Memory of the World Collection". The National Manuscripts Mission has recognised the IFP as a "Manuscript Resource Centre".
The Indology Department has several on-going projects. A massive project is the preparation of the Historical Atlas of South India. "This is an atlas to represent the history of South India in maps. We start from pre-history and go up to 1600 A.D.," said Dr. Y. Subbarayalu, Coordinator, of the project. It is a collaborative project of the IFP with four universities, one from each State in South India: Tamil University, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu; the Central University, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh; Mangalore University, Karnataka; and Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala. The project is funded by the Ford Foundation. As a pilot project, the IFP and Tamil University have jointly prepared a historical map of Pudukottai district in Tamil Nadu, which is available on the Internet and in CD form. Another huge project is the compilation of the "Dictionary of Examples of Paninian Grammar". Panini's work is the earliest systematic work on grammar in Sanskrit, which has several commentaries. The aim of the project is to collect and publish quotations from these commentaries, which explain the rules in Sanskrit grammar.
The Tamil Studies wing of the Indology Department is engaged in the project of collecting, documenting and analysing Tamil literature, including short stories, poetry, drama and novels published in Tamil Nadu or by members of the Tamil diaspora in the last 150 years.
The Department of Ecology has done marvellous work in the past 50 years in preparing vegetation/forest maps of the Western Ghats, which have been recognised as one of the 25 major biodiversity "hot-spots" in the world. According to Dr. Pierre Couteron, the maps prepared by his department on different types of forests in the Western Ghats have helped the Forest Departments of Karnataka, Kerala and Goa to undertake conservation measures. A map titled "Landscape and Land-use Map of the Western Anamalai Region, Kerala" was prepared by the Ecology Department with the help of images from ISRO's IRS-P6 satellite.
The Department of Social Sciences tackles issues of importance to contemporary India. "We work on each and every aspect of the economy, including the development of megapolises, industrial development, micro-finance and labour issues," said department head Dr. Laurent Pordie. Another important topic of study is water. "We try to understand the pattern of use of water in Tamil Nadu, the government's policies relating to water, and how the farmers live with these policies," he said. The Department also studies traditional, folk and literary medicine. Literary medicine includes Siddha, Unani and Tibetan medicine. The health issues under study relate to studies on malaria, Japanese encephalitis, HIV/AIDS and chikun-gunya. The other protagonists at IFP include Dr. Isabelle Guerin, a specialist in micro-financial assistance in India, and David Picherit, who is studying the seasonal migration of labour in Andhra Pradesh. He has studied Lambadas, Gollas, Madigas and other migrant groups.
DR. PIERRE COUTERON, Head of the Ecology Department, with the "Landscape and land-use map of the Western Anamalai region, Kerala".
"Our future plans are to continue the developments in these three fields [or departments]," said Dr. Muller. Besides showing interest in the Indian cultural heritage, the IFP has focussed its attention on Tamil Nadu "the heart of Saiva Siddhanta land". "We are interested in classical and contemporary Tamil, its literature, language, and tradition," he said. Dr. Muller would like the IFP to concentrate on "development projects". He considered the IFP an "observatory" of on-going political, scientific and social developments in India. It should be a "home of science" that welcomed and executed research projects on sustainable development in partnership with French and European institutions on the one hand and South Asian and South-East Asian institutions on the other.
As for the IFP's future collaborative projects, Dr. Muller said he had signed memoranda of understanding last year with the Departments of Forests of State governments, ISRO, the NRSA and the Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Tradition, Bangalore. He added: "We are developing new projects in urban dynamics and spatial epidemiology."
In ecology, the IFP was working with the NRSA in analysing the problem of forest fires. "We projected our idea [of forest fires] to the NRSA and they found it interesting," he said. The IFP had executed projects with partners on the mangroves in Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh and the Yanam area of Pondicherry. "We have developed a strategy for conserving these mangroves," he said. The IFP had signed an MoU with Ruhuna University of Sri Lanka and the Research Institute of Evolutionary Biology, Japan, for studying "dipterocarp" forests on the island and in the Western Ghats."Our budget from France is decreasing. That is why we present projects to funding agencies," Dr. Muller said.