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Deep rivers

Kannan M.
Jennifer Clare

Biographical note

Texte intégral

François GROS

Born in Lyon, Sunday 17th December 1933.


Classical studies in Lyon: Première Supérieure, Licence ès Lettres classiques, Diplôme d’études supérieures (in Homeric Greek).

Initiated into Indian studies by the teachings of Armand Minard in comparative Indo-European.

Passed the Licence d’études indiennes.

Simultaneously studied ethnology with André Leroi-Gourhan over three years.

Passed the License d’ethnology.

Agrégation de grammaire.


Appointed to Lycée Bugeaud, Algiers, then sent for compulsory military service in Algeria, taught at the Lycée d’Aumale in Constantine and then at the Military Cadets School (P.P.E.S.M.I.A.) in Strasbourg.


Plucked out of secondary education by the Fondation Thiers, he spent three years in the company of Pierre Nora, Jean Tulard, Jean Gattégno, Marc Fumaroli. Completed his curriculum of Indian studies: classes of Pierre Meile at INALCO (Hindi and Tamil), Sanskrit at Institut de Civilisation indienne (Louis Renou), Collège de France (Jean Filliozat), VIème Section of the EPHE (later the EHESS) under Louis Dumont and Daniel Thorner, Musée Guimet, and its Association française des Amis de l’Orient, of which F. Gros was later to be, for ten years, the president; fortuitously too the famous French Cinémathèque rue d’Ulm moved to the Trocadero, closer than previously to the Fondation Thiers.


On the verge of returning to the study of French literature, he was appointed by Jean Filliozat as a fellow at the French Institute of Pondicherry which had been created in 1954 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Promoted member of Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO) in situ in 1967, he was to remain there for ten years. T. P. Meenakshisundaram, Vice Chancellor of the very new Madurai University said that F. Gros was playing the role of the image in the sanctuary, mulavigraha, whilst Filliozat, much more visible, represented the processional image, utsavavigraha.

With the encouragement of J. Filliozat, a man of inexhaustible learning, unconventional and with a passion for living India, he specialised in the field of Dravidian culture and medieval studies.


Upon the retirement of Jean Filliozat, F. Gros succeeded him at the EPHE (École Pratique des Hautes Études), but in a Chair of History and Philology of Southern India newly created for the development of Dravidian studies.

1977-2002 Member of the Conseil scientifique of the French Institute of Pondicherry.

1979 Became the only non Indian member of the Board of Governors of the International Institute of Tamil Studies at Taramani, Chennai.

1989 Elected Vice-President of the International Association for Tamil Research (IATR). Re-elected in 1995.


Nominated director of the EFEO for three years and, so that the original synergy be preserved he was also designated as “responsable scientifique” of the Indological department of the French Institute of Pondicherry by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs till 1984.

1981-1984 Second nomination as director of EFEO, prolonged till 1989 “dans l’intérêt du service”.

1985 June, Elected Membre libre de l’Académie des Sciences d’Outre-Mer.

A free mandate along with the lack of infra structure and of almost every other essential meant that twelve years of weighty administrative burden went by before F. Gros could give up the directorship which he was finally able to do on 30th November 1989. His priorities were:

1. New bylaws for EFEO

The procrastination of the successive governments to revise the 1963 bylaws ended only in 1988; when the structures were finally created to allow the appointment of a new director by the end of 1989.

2. Recovery of the previous areas of research of EFEO all over South-East Asia and China, notwithstanding the fact that the area was not the priority of the French external policy.

New appointments were made and welcomed in France on Chinese and South-East Asian studies, but negotiations with the Asian governments has been a time consuming process for years:

- 1983, in November, returned to Vietnam, after thirty years. The three volumes of Catalogue des livres en Han Nom, (more than 3000 pages) was a positive result of this even though it took ten more years for the work to be published in Hanoi (1993) in a Franco-Vietnamese edition co-signed by F. Gros.

  • From the end of 1983, official contacts with, and discreet missions to, Cambodia.
  • End of 1987, spectacular official inauguration of the EFEO Centre at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
  • 1987-1989, unofficial visits followed by official ones to Vientiane, Laos. Mission carried out with former EFEO specialists and representative of the Ministry of External Affairs.
  • 1988, Fonds d’édition des Manuscrits du Cambodge founded, introducing to the EFEO for the first time significant external financial patronage (A.G.F., Indo-Suez, etc.).

3. Diversification of the editorial activity of the EFEO

mostly to give to the centres more autonomy to interact, and more visibility. The following living series were launched during the period 1980-1989:

1980, Textes et Documents nousantariens, in Jakarta (8 volumes issued between 1980-1989).

1985, Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie, in French and English, published by the Kyoto centre.

1987, Collection of Romans et Contes du Vietnam écrits en Han, published in Taipei.

1987, Réimpressions de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient at Paris headquarters.

4. Organization of the library

1981 appointment of a curator by the National Directorate of Libraries

Revised cataloguing and regular publication of acquisition lists

Co-operation attempted with other specialised libraries

5. In India, widening the horizon of indological studies

Diversification of the Sanskrit programmes towards literature, grammar and logic, emphasis on all aspects of Tamil culture, multidisciplinary programmes developing research in social sciences, architecture, urbanism and linguistics.


Contributions to two programmes of the French Institute of Pondicherry and participation in their conferences and review meetings

  • Historical Atlas of South-India
  • Contemporary Tamil Culture.

Field of research

- Caṅkam literature, from the study and translation in 1968 of Paripāṭal, ancient literary Tamil text, which was awarded the Prix Saintour of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in 1969, followed by a series of articles on Cankam literature, to 1992 Livre de l’Amour de Tiruvalluvar followed by articles on the commentaries on the text and their significance in a medieval universe, interfaced with Sanskrit.

- Series of studies dealing with Tamil Saiva devotion, such as the poetry and representations of Karaikkalammaiyar, the Indian reading of the hymns of the Tevaram, the significance of the Periya Purāṇam, the songs of Arunakirinatar.

- A study on Uttaramērūr, histoire, légendes et monuments, published with R. Nagaswamy in 1970, attracted the attention of Bernard-Philippe Groslier for its emphasis on the articulation between the actual town planning and monuments and the normative vision defined by the śilpaśāstra and implemented by the local authorities, as strikingly revealed by the inscriptions.

- In 1980, on the initiative of F. Gros the collective and multi-disciplinary project on Tiruvannamalai was launched and was followed up by M.-L. Reiniche. It mobilised the Pondicherry centre and its associates for more than fifteen years. Another programme on Kaveri Valley (1985) ended up with the thesis of Jacques Gaucher De la maison à la ville en pays Tamoul. (étude sur les formes urbaines de la ville temple sud indienne).

- In 2002, the first output of the Contemporary Tamil programme concerned Tamil Dalit Literature and an anthology of Tamil short stories in French translation with a critical study, both in co-operation with Kannan M. Proceedings of the conferences of this programme are also regularly published. Twelve years of administrative duty generated a tremendous amount of speeches, reports, proposals, notes, official and confidential, all fit for oblivion or feeding the “transformer to make use of every bit of the “wasted energy” imagined by Marcel Duchamp. To be spared:

-“L’EFEO domaine indien 1951-1976 Vingt-cinq ans de philologie?” which is still informative for the problematics and references, published in Travaux et Perspectives de l’Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient en son 75ème Anniversaire. Note that the question-mark, absolutely essential here, had unfortunately vanished from the running title and the table of contents.

- Passeurs d’Orient, Encounters between India and France, a bilingual collection of texts on the many facets of French indology, edited by F. Gros, with an Introduction by Kapila Vatsyayan, published with illustrations, in 1991, by the French Ministry of External Affairs as a follow up to the Year of India in France.

A final word:

F. Gros wanted to have written on the door of his directorial office his personal version of an additional corollary to the famous “The Peter Principle”: “In a hierarchy, sycophancy is in direct proportion to incompetence”, but was dissuaded by his colleagues from bequeathing such an irreverence to his successors.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2009

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