Joseph Garcin de Tassy
by Matt Reeck
Joseph Héliodore Sagesse Vertu Garcin de Tassy was one of the most notable and prolific French Orientalists. While he is completely absent from Edward Said’s history of Orientalism, de Tassy’s work forms the foundation of French linguistic and literary knowledge of Hindi/Urdu, and his texts on Islam brought new restraint, consideration, and insight into French public discourse on Islam and its South Asian varieties.
Born on January 25, 1794 in Marseille to a family of merchants, he began learning Arabic at twenty years of age through his father’s Egyptian business partners. Quickly realizing his aptitude, he left for Paris in 1817, where he sought out Silvestre de Sacy, the doyen of French Orientalism. Under de Sacy’s instruction at l’Ecole des Langues Orientales Vivantes [School of Living Oriental Languages], he embarked on the study of Persian and Turkish, as well as furthering his studies of Arabic. de Tassy had a remarkable ability to grasp languages, and his mentor, knowing that France then had no scholars who could claim to know any of the living languages of South Asia, directed him to study Hindi/Urdu, or Hindustani, as it was called at the time. After graduating in 1821, he became de Sacy’s personal secretary the following year. The same year he was the secretary for the first meeting of the Société Asiatique, formed, it should be noted, two years before its British counterpart. Subsequently, he was elected the Society’s librarian and was in large part responsible for building the first collections for the Society’s library, which began in earnest in 1823. After leaving this post three years later, he began serving the society as a board member in 1831, and he was elected its president in 1876, two years before his death. In 1838, he was elected a member of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres [Academy of Inscriptions and Literary Arts], an event that marked him as joining the French intellectual elite.
While de Tassy’s first published works as a student were translations from Arabic and Turkish, he was appointed in 1828 to a Chair in Hindustani at the School of Living Oriental Languages, a position created by de Sacy for his pupil. He held this post until his death. His study of Hindustani drew entirely upon British resources. Not much of a traveller himself, his foreign voyages included only three occasions when he visited London in search of materials in Hindi and Urdu. He never visited South Asia. In time he developed an impressive list of contacts with Anglophone Indologists, both those in British colonial India and in Britain, including William H. Allen, the publisher of Allen’s Indian Mail; Duncan Forbes, Professor of Oriental Languages at King’s College, London; Edwin Norris, the longstanding secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society of London; and Colonel William Henry Skyes, the founder of the Royal Statistical Society. By 1829, he compiled a Hindustani primer, Rudiments de la langue hindoustanie, which cemented his importance in French Orientalist circles as a Hindi/Urdu language expert. From that point, he worked exclusively on that literature, as well as on Islam in South Asia. His major works include Histoire de la littérature hindouie et hindoustanie [The History of the Literature of Hindi and Urdu]. A mammoth enterprise, its first volume was published in 1839 and its second in 1846. Both volumes have introductions and more than 600 pages of catalogues naming writers and providing brief descriptions of their work. Interestingly, these volumes were published in Paris with money from the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. A second edition of three volumes followed in 1870 and 1871, each volume of equal length to those of the first edition. In de Tassy’s works on Islamic literature and Islam, his bias in favor of Islam over Hinduism is evident. In his 1871 introduction to History, he writes, “Ultimately, to convert from Islam to Hinduism would be retrograde, while for Hindus, adopting Islam is evident progress, since the belief in the unity of God and of an afterlife is its basis.” Yet, in another work, he shows interest in how the two religions overlap, arguing in Mémoire sur les particularités de la religion musulmane dans l’Inde d’après les ouvrages hindustanis [Concerning the particularities of Islam in India, from Hindustani Sources] (1831) that South Asian Islam adopted customs and practices from Hinduism that Muslims outside of the region would consider aberrant if not heretical. Beginning in 1850 and lasting until the year before his death, he gave a yearly public lecture on the state of Hindustani. It served as a sort of year-in-review for the public about the year’s major publications, intellectual debates, and pertinent historical considerations. (No lecture, however, was given in 1858 or 1860.) He would later compile these surveys in vast works that began with the 1870 publication of La langue et la littérature hinduostanies, Revue Annuelle 1850-1869 [The Annual Revue of Hindustani Language and Literature]. He would publish an update every year. A prolific translator, as well, he has to his credit translations from six languages—Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and English. Interested in ethnology as most intellectuals of his time were, he joined the Société d’ethnographie de Paris [The Ethnographic Society of Paris], an organization founded in 1859, where he served for a time as its vice-president. The overlap between de Tassy’s work and that of Anglophone linguists is notable. He uses an epigraph from H. H. Wilson, an Orientalist, Sanskrit scholar, and superintendent of the Sanskrit College of Calcutta, to begin his History, “The Hindi dialects have a literature of their own and one of very great interest.” de Tassy’s grammar is then cited as a source in Reverend S. H. Kellogg’s 1876 A Grammar of the Hindi Language.
He married Marie Félicité Sophie Saisset in 1822, and she preceded him in death in 1875. They had no children. He died in Paris on September 2, 1878, and he was buried in Marseille. Ernest Renan, speaking to the Société Asiatique’s June 1879 annual meeting, called de Tassy “the last of those scrupulous Orientalists who, gathered around Silvestre de Sacy, executed their studies of Asia with a degree of breadth and rigor previously unknown. No one contributed more than him in teaching us the philosophical mystical poetry of the Orient that has its unique beauty.”
Ajmal Kamal, “Dishonesty, thy name is Urdu criticism,” Dawn 16 Sept 2015; S Kamal Abdali, “Translator’s Note on ‘Hindustani Language and Literature,’” Annual of Urdu Studies 26 (2011); “Garcin de Tassy, Joseph Héliodore.” Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. 2011; Sayida Surriya Husain, Garcin de Tassy: Biographie et étude critique de ses oeuvres, 1962; Rauf Parekh, “Garcin de Tassy: the great French scholar of Urdu.” Dawn 24 Sept 2012; M Waseem, “Introduction,” in Muslim Festivals in India, and other essays, 1995.