Immortality has many earthly avatars, and one of them is being transformed into a demi-god at the world-famous Madame Tussauds wax museum. So it was a red-letter day when the London-based Madame Tussauds opened its first-ever exhibition in India, in the heart of New Delhi in Connaught Place, on the 1st of December 2017.
One of more than 20 locations in the world where the wax museum exhibits its startlingly life-like wax models, the erstwhile cinema hall, the Regal, was chosen as the venue for the exhibition in New Delhi. By inaugurating its India exhibition, the iconic, two-century-old institution allowed enthusiasts in India to rub shoulders with their idols, or at least, with their wax forms.
But India’s connection to Marie Tussaud (née Grosholtz – 1761-1850), the woman who founded the eponymous institution, goes back a long way. It stretches back to even before Tussaud settled in London and founded her celebrated museum in Baker Street, which later shifted to its present-day location in Marylebone.
Pamela Pilbeam, in her book Madame Tussaud and the History of Waxworks, highlights how the practice of publicly exhibiting wax figures goes back to the early days of European history when the Greeks and later the Romans used wax effigies in funeral parades of the notables in society, including royals. However, in the years following the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, they served a very different purpose. Since procuring corpses was a huge challenge for students of medicine and anatomy, wax statues were introduced as an alternative to cadavers.
Philippe Curtius (1737-1794), a physician from Berne, became well-known for achieving perfection in creating wax replicas of anatomical figures. Prince de Conte (1717-1776), a cousin of Louis XV, French Emperor, was so impressed with Curtius’s models while on a visit to Berne that he offered to patronise Curtius if the latter agreed to turn his talent from medicine to portraiture and set up an exhibition in Paris. Curtius readily accepted the offer and relocated to Paris, where he went along with his housekeeper and Marie Grosholtz.
Although Curtius always introduced Marie as his niece, her biographers consider her to be Curtius’s biological daughter.
Curtius was a bachelor and he trained Marie to be his able assistant. She later inherited the business on Curtius’s death in 1794.
Curtius’s first exhibition in Paris was titled Cabinet de Cire. It opened in 1770 and displayed life-like wax figures of the celebrities of the day. In 1782, Curtius inaugurated a second exhibition, at Boulevard du Temple, where he added the Caverne des Grands Voleurs, or Chamber of Horrors, to this exhibition. It exhibited life-like figures of notorious criminals of the day and has remained a chief attraction of Madame Tussauds ever since.
Marie Tussaud’s own memoir, compiled about a half century later, in 1838, gives us a glimpse into her encounters with the leading celebrities of the day, like the French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778), and how she got them to sit for her wax portraits. Voltaire’s wax model, along with a few others, was later exhibited in India.
In this regard, Tussaud’s encounter with the ambassadors of the Indian prince, Tipu Sultan of Mysore in 1788, is of particular interest. Tipu Sultan’s diplomatic exchanges with the French and his effort to garner French support against the English had been prominently written about by historians. In July 1787, Tipu Sultan sent a new embassy directly to Paris, comprising three ambassadors – Mohammed Dervich Khan, Akbar Ali Khan and Mohammad Osman Khan – who were accompanied by the French trader from Pondicherry, M Monneron. They arrived in Paris in 1788 and, apart from King Louis XVI, met a number of other important Frenchmen.
During their time in Paris, Tipu’s envoys paid a visit to Curtius’s Cabinet de Cire. They were also likely the first Indians who had their portraits cast in wax by Marie Tussaud. They also brought back wax figures of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to Mysore. A wax model of Tipu himself later featured in Marie Tussaud’s catalogue of her collection that she took to Britain in 1802.
The exhibition assumed new significance in 1789, when the French Revolution broke out in Paris. Curtius himself took part in the Storming of the Bastille, and he and Marie were given the responsibility of ‘archiving’ the sacrifices made at the altar of the Revolution. Marie later gave a vivid description in her memoir of how she was kept busy during the Revolution, creating wax models of heads freshly guillotined and still dripping with blood!
In 1793, mistrust among the revolutionaries gave the Revolution a violent twist, and it was no longer safe for Curtius to exhibit figures of the Ancien Regime, or the royalty. With business slowing in 1794, Curtius decided to send some of the highlights of his collection for exhibition in India under the care of Dominick Laurency, an Italian showman.
Laurency, the caretaker of the collection, on whom very little detail is available, targeted the English audience in Calcutta and Madras, the then two major strongholds of the English East India Company. Unfortunately, we do not have any information on how the collection was transported across such a long distance or how the wax models were protected from the tropical climate in India.
The little information about the exhibitions that is available comes from contemporary newspaper reports and Laurency’s advertisements for the events. The December 7th 1794, issue of the Calcutta Gazette mentions that Laurency had arrived in Calcutta on “one of the Danish ships” and was ready with his exhibition, complete with 22 wax figures “in their natural size”.
The exhibition opened in Calcutta during the festive season in December 1794. Laurency’s advertisement suggests that he rented a house in the heart of the city’s ‘White Town’, at 2, Old Court House Street, for the exhibition. The Cabinet of Cire was open to the public for four days a week. There was also provision for special private tours.
However, the location of the exhibition and the pricey entry fee of one gold mohur suggest that only a handful of the white population attended the exhibition. There were other attractions, such as the Optic of Zaler, a peep show representing the rising of the sun over the capital cities of Europe in all their intricate details. Peep show boxes, which allowed viewers to peep into cityscapes or the interiors of palaces recreated in miniature, were becoming popular at this time. It is difficult to determine how Laurency’s exhibition was received in Calcutta but we do know that it continued till July, before he set sail for Madras.
A report published in the Madras Courier in August 1795 indicates that Laurency had managed to secure a more elaborate venue for his exhibition in Madras. A palace of the Nawabs of Arcot at Choultry Plain, more commonly “known by the name of the Mackay’s Garden” was rented for the purpose.
Laurency’s advertisement in the Madras Courier also gives us a clearer idea of the 22 wax figures that were exhibited. They mostly included figures from the late French monarchy, like Louis XVI himself, Dauphin, the prince, as well as the emperor’s brothers and duchesses. It had become increasingly difficult to publicly exhibit these figures in France after the fall of the Bastille. Monarchs from other countries, such as the Prussian emperor Frederick II, the German emperor Joseph II and the Russian emperor were also part of the exhibition.
The Chamber of Horrors, though, was not a part of the exhibition but there were exhibits that had a direct connection to the French Revolution. Alongside a scale model of the fort of Bastille, there was an elaborate model depicting the beheading of Joseph Foulon the imperial finance minister, on the guillotine. The life-likeness of this particular model with “blood seems to be streaming from the severed head and running on the ground” generated much interest among viewers.
An advertisement published in the Madras Courier in early October suggests that the exhibition continued till 15th October, before Laurency folded it up and left for France. By this time, Philippe Curtius had passed away, in late 1794. However, Curtius’s Cabinet continued to be exhibited under his name in Paris till 1800, by Marie Tussaud, who inherited the collection. The story of Curtius’s Cabinet de Cire came to an end in 1802, when Marie left France for good and moved to England permanently.
In 1835, Madame Tussaud would establish her museum in Baker Street in London, which over the years would become a world-renowned tourist attraction, especially popular with Indians visiting London. Now Indians drawn to the attraction are aware of Madame Tussaud’s old India connection.
Sarbajit Mitra is PhD researcher at the Department of History, School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Sarbajit’s area of interests include architecture, urban history and history of science and medicine.