Pierre Legris and the IFP Herbarium

Ichnocarpus Frutescens from the Herbarium of the French Institute of Pondicherry. The collection item was recorded on 21 April 1957 by Pierre Legris. Image Courtesy: Institut Français de Pondichéry

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Pondicherry was a provincial town in the south of India. Sunny in its appearance, Pondicherry became the focal point of the beginnings and advancement of botanical studies in India. The French Institute rose to prominence in the field.

In the wake of India’s focus on scientific institution building in the Nehruvian era, the Institute decided to establish a science section that would focus on the studies of geographical, biological and agricultural sciences.

At the turn of the 1950s decade, the General Directorate of Cultural and Technical Affairs of France, hoping for greater participation of the then Government of India and Indian scholars, gave a lot of attention to the Institute. As a part of the overall plan for it, they also made better funding solutions.

Pierre Legris was an engineer in the Forestry Commission of France and posted in Pondicherry as the Inspector of Water and Functions. He had a keen interest in biodiversity.

In 1956, Stanislas Ostroróg, the French Ambassador to India, signed the Treaty of Cession. It was a year after the establishment of Institut Français d’Indologie with Jean Filliozat as its founding director. The Institut Français d’Indologie later became Institut Français de Pondichéry in 1958 formally. Filliozat was a historian of Indian medicine and an Indologist. He made seminal contributions to the study of Indian medicinal plants.

Filliozat’s academic reputation and expertise attracted several other scholars at the Institute. Before becoming the director of Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient, he, with the encouragement of Jawaharlal Nehru, established a department of Ecology to study the conditions and evolution of the environment in South India. Nehru was of an opinion that culture is required to be examined in the context of its natural environment to which Filliozat had no strong reservations. Later, the institute specialised in the fields of botany and cartography of the south Indian biodiversity.

The research objective thus was determined, but they still required the plants for study. Legris was the man for the job. He founded the Herbarium of the French Institute of Pondicherry in 1956. He also served as the head of the science section of the Institute. Between him and his collaborators from Bombay made significant contributions to the herbarium. Other important contributors include Meher-Homji, (between 1960 and 1981), G. Thanikaimani, Palynologist (1960-1986), Blasco (1962-1978), Shankaranarayan (1957-1959), Balasubramanian (1971-1979), Seetharam (1977-1981), Suresh (1980-1981), Jean-Pierre Pascal (1974-1994). B.R. Ramesh (1982 onwards), and N. Ayyappan (2005 onwards).

Legris, with the collaboration of his colleagues from Bombay, drew up a map of the vegetation cover of southern India. Ostroróg wanted to scale up Lergis’s initiative and declared that France is committed to devoting proportional funds for this project. In 1959, Legris’s mapping project received funding from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and UNESCO. The following year, the Nehru administration agreed to cover the costs of printing the map for the entire Indian territory and made provision for Indian scholars to collaborate. The maps were made and later published as a separate volume.

The vegetation map of the Indian subcontinent. It is considered as one of the most impressive accomplishment of Pierre Legris.
“It shows more than the purely physiognomic maps of vegetation because of the correlations they suggest between the ecological conditions (climatic, edaphic, biotic) and the present state of natural vegetation.” [Ref: Legris and Meher-Homji, 1968, p.39]

In 1957, the French Mission in Pondicherry also published the first volume of Works of the Scientific and Technical Section, of the French Institute of Pondicherry. The contents include: “The economy of plantations in South India”, by Jacques Dupuis, preceded by a “Note on the ecological map of the Vegetal Carpet”, by Legris, and followed by “Note on an abnormal flower of Datura Fastuosa” by V Meher-Homji and M. V. Dhabolkar.

“The economy of plantations in South India”, by Jacques Dupuis established the formal Indo-French partnership in the study of biodiversity.

Pierre Legris and François Blasaco’s 1973 study of the western ghats can be accessed here.