School of memories

Lycee Française de Pondichery is soaked in history and stands witness to many a game of thrones

There is an address, in the little town of Puducherry, that carries within it the stories of an empire... the stories of an institution that has lived through many of history’s tumultuous events. And it tells these stories through the eyes of children — children who decked its walls in the 1940s, with their own recreations of classic masterpieces. And those who stood, with wide smiles, in neat rows in crisp, clean uniforms, for formal photographs they captioned, “Class of 1932”. And 1972. And 2012. And probably 1892, as well.

Persian was taught to them as an important, local language for every day use. There was space for theatre as well. They also enacted plays in the 1980s and immortalised them in still film.

This is a school, in the little town of Puducherry, that has been educating generation after generation for 190 years. Called Lycee Française de Pondichery since 1973, the quaint white and yellow quarters at 12, Victor Simonel Street was named College Empire in the 1840s, a few years after it was first put to educational use. This somewhat grand name was anointed to it after the Second French Revolution; as the throne changed hands back in Europe, so did all the institutions under its command. Thus, within two decades of its founding, this school in a quiet, coastal South Asian town would have felt the first of many tremors of the incidents in European history.

A visionary

The school was originally started in 1826. “It was established by Eugene Panon, who was Governor-General of this town for three years, from 1825 to 1827. He was only 23 years old then, the youngest Governor-General of the French Empire,” says Raphael Malangin, who teaches History at the lycee today.

Malangin explains how this establishment, though set up by the powers-that- be, was in a way an exercise in rebellion. “The idea was to teach in the Napoleonic way, not missionary – to keep education separate from the Church,” he says, adding, with a laugh, “Most of the French settled here were Catholic, though, and actually preferred missionary education for their children. So in the beginning, there were barely 30 or 40 students in attendance.”

But the numbers steadily grew, as did the campus, and the syllabus. Indigenous languages were introduced sooner than you would expect from a colonising power. “The administration here needed to groom people who had the ability to communicate, firstly in Tamil, and also in Hindi and Persian, which was quite commonly used back in those days. So, a programme called ‘enfants de Langue’ was started in 1827,” says Malangin.

Not just the syllabus but the premises were also worked on in consequent years and decades. The building, which had been chosen by Panon for the practical, unromantic reason of being easily available on rent, was retained. New wings were added, so was an upper floor, and part of the school was turned into residential premises for a while. “The garden has been maintained almost exactly as it was in the 1800s, and the columns and the aisles are just the same,” says Malangin.

There were photographs to corroborate this: files and files of memories stretching far back, but most of them fell prey to termites over the years. A few have been salvaged, however, and “The National Archives in France have a sizeable collection of photographs,” says Malangin. In Puduchery, however, there is little to look back at as time marches on.

College Empire was eventually renamed College Colonial, and then College Française in 1945, as the seat of power found various occupants in France. By the 20th Century, the trickle of 30 students had turned in to 1,300. Today, it is 1,600. Originally envisioned exclusively for French nationals, today, 20 % of the students are Indian nationals.

The words being recited in the classrooms have changed, as have the voices reciting them, but they are still the steps of the young that echo down the wooden stairs, still the voices of children that laugh at jokes and share their delightful everyday stories of innocence. .

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Printable version | Mar 29, 2020 3:05:22 AM |

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