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Updated: October 18, 2010 20:13 IST

The story of the Francisis

R. V. Smith
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Illustration: Tony Smith
The Hindu
Illustration: Tony Smith

The Francisis were the families of French, Dutch, Armenian, Portuguese, German and British descent who came to be termed as such in the 18th and 19th centuries. The term was in use right up to the second decade of the 20th Century when the last of the prominent Armenians died in Agra. Rahat Abrar's book “1857 Ka Aene Shahid” (written about in Friday Review) mentions one of the Francisis, George Puech, who wrote poetry under the pseudonym Shor. He was of French descent and the maternal grandson of Francois Koine “Farasoo” , from whom he imbibed his love for Urdu poetry. This fact was widely acknowledged by Puech, who had a great attachment to his ‘Nana'.

Why were European descendants known as Francisis? The answer is that our forefathers mistakenly considered them to be inhabitants of France because of the early presence of Frenchmen at the Moghul court (where they vied with the British for royal favours). Abrar refers to Puech's visit to Delhi just before the Uprising and the portents he noticed. In those days rumours were rife that British rule would be overthrown in 1857, a 100 years after the battle of Plassey.

When Puech came to Delhi he met the Francisi residents. Among these were the skinners, Heatherleys and Bensleys (all three families votaries of Urdu). They stayed in the Kashmere Gate area. In the main Walled City area the most famous man then was Mirza Ghalib, whom he presumably met, and also attended a mushaira at the haveli of Sadr Sadur, in Matia Mahal, where Ghalib often recited his compositions. The Urdu papers of Delhi were full of rumours about trouble brewing for the British.

The bearers and khansamahs of the Sahib-log had their own tales to tell. Thali-beating and chants of “Nare Taqbi” (at the mosques) and “Har Har Mahadev” in Chandni Chowk could also be heard till late at night. But Daryaganj, where Indian Christians and some British stayed, was comparatively peaceful. Puech rightly surmised that a storm was about to break out.

The mystique attached to “57” continued in the 20th Century as people expected a change in 1957 too. But that came a decade sooner in 1947, when Partition took place. Now let's wait for 2057 to see if that date too holds some such portent — as did 1657, when Shah Jahan fell ill and the battle for succession began. Puech, who was born in Kol, near Aligarh, visited Agra after his Delhi sojourn.

He was a frequent visitor to the city of the Taj, where he had married his first wife Maryan, daughter of an old Francisi. But she died young and is buried in the cemetery behind Akbar's Church. Puech's fame surpassed that of his maternal grandfather, even though the latter was regarded as the father of Francisi poets writing in Urdu, despite the fact that the Indo-German Nawab Zafaryab Khan “Sahib” was among the pioneers, along with John Smidt “Shaiq”. Curiously, Farasoo and Shor were classified by Rambabu Saxena among Indo-German poets in his monumental book “Indo-European Poets of Urdu.”

George Puech “Shor” (1823-1894), whose ‘takhalus' means noise, wrote six volumes of Urdu poetry, a Persian dewan and an anthology of religious poems. He also composed horis, bhajans, thumris and dadras. Puech's descendants, George Puech Jr, who married a South Asian lady, and Maurice Puech, a product of St. John's College, Agra, resided in Meerut. George died young but Maurice continued as an authority on his family's history with the help of the large material on it that he had collected. He used to visit Delhi and write occasionally in defence of his heritage, though one has not seen his pieces for some years now.

Among other “Francisi” poets who made their mark in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the foremost were Alexander Heatherley Azad, a pupil of Ghalib's nephew Nawab Zainul Abadin Arif; Benjamn Montrose “Muztar”, shagird of Dagh Dehlvi; the Portuguese De Sylvas, Fitrat and Maftoon; the Fanthomes, the Lajoies, Burvetts; the Italian Filoses, Jan, Talib and Matlab; the Anglo Indian Ellena Christina Gardner (Razia Sultan Begum), Sulaiman Shikoh Gardner and the Armenians Jamid at Malika Jan and Gohar Jan. Like George Puech “Shor” they all had close links with Delhi and many of them were also witness to the events of 1857.

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