In July 1790, Baltazard Solvyns, a young marine painter, embarked on a voyage to India to escape political unrest in northern Europe and make his fortune. He came aboard L’Etrusco, commanded by Captain Home Popham, who was engaged in illegal trade that ignored the East India Company’s monopoly. It was mandatory to get permission from the Company’s board of directors in London to live in Bengal but by virtue of being aboard L’Etrusco, Solvyns was unable to do so.
Though he managed to enter Calcutta (now Kolkata), he was not accepted into European society and lived on the margins, around Tank Square, a congested area most Europeans avoided. “This worked to our advantage, as he ended up interacting a lot more with Indians on the street than the other Europeans. As he worked odd jobs, Solvyns embarked on a project, of sorts, to capture the mannerisms, costumes and Hindu society of Calcutta,” says Giles Tillotson, senior vice-president, exhibitions and publications, at DAG. “In most cases, he was representing only things that he had seen in his immediate environment.”
This resulted in 250 hand-coloured etchings, published in Calcutta between 1796-99. He was commercially unsuccessful, however, and had to return to Europe. In Paris, he published an enlarged edition, arranged thematically, between 1808-12. The four volumes had text in French and English and some additional plates, taking the number of etchings to 288.
Now DAG is exhibiting this complete series, titled Les Hindoûs by Solvyns, at Bikaner House, Delhi, for the first time. “Solvyns is not very well-known, except to a few specialists. Most people have heard of Thomas and William Daniell, who did picturesque landscapes,” says Tillotson, the show’s curator. “A great many European artists at that time were portrait painters, who would paint the rich and the powerful Company officials or nawabs. But Solvyns was unique as he focused on the ordinary and common people that he encountered on the streets of Calcutta.”
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Many of the portraits exude a melancholic, sombre mood. Like the Gouallahs (goala) from Volume 1, which shows a loincloth-clad cowherd, looking contemplative and leaning on a little stick, with a chattah, or an umbrella, in his hand.
Solvyns depicts different professions as well as those who had given up the worldly life, festivals, ceremonies, material culture and costumes. “In the 18th century, when Solvyns lived in Calcutta, India’s relationship with Europe was not on equal terms. But 200 years on, we can return his gaze with equanimity and ease, to explore not just what his depiction of India tells us about him, but whether we can learn in it anything about ourselves,” says Ashish Anand, CEO and managing director, DAG.
Many of the etchings show Solvyns’ own relationship with the people in his environment. In one, he is seen surrounded by Indian figures, in conversation with a woman in a floral shawl. “Though he does not say as much, he perhaps intended her to represent the Indo-Portuguese community,” notes Tillotson in the book that accompanies the exhibition and contextualises Solvyns’ work. Festivals and ceremonies are depicted in double-page plates, such as a Brahmin discoursing on the Mahabharat or a recitation of the Ramayan. However, there seems to be some distance between the artist and the gathering. “It shows that he is tolerated as an observer and not as a participant,” explains Tillotson.
Les Hindoûs also offers a glimpse of objects and implements in use at the time. “The second half of Volume II is entirely devoted to musical instruments (plates 52 to 56); while Volume III is largely occupied by collections of boats and river craft (plates 57 to 61), carriages and carts (plates 6 to 8, and 62 to 65), and instruments for smoking (plates 66 to 68),” writes Tillotson. Solvyns, he adds, included these to present not just a more rounded sense of the lifestyle of the people he portrays, but also because he believed they exemplified, and supported, his idea that Hindu civilisation was ancient and unchanging.
Though Solvyns creates intimate, perceptive portraits, they are not necessarily comprehensive representations of society at the time. Tillotson notes, “As his book’s title frankly declares, his focus is on the Hindus, who—despite internal distinctions and hierarchies—seem in his account of them to inhabit a homogeneous world, very little touched by people of other faiths or nationality.”
The reason, he says, could be that Solvyns seems to have got most of his information about Hindu society from Bengali Brahmins. “He swallows wholesale that Indian society is almost entirely based on the laws of Manu, or Manusmriti. As works of art, these are terrific portraits of people. But you have to be mindful of the omissions, such as that of elite Muslims.”
The other omission is of women—there are very few portraits, mostly in later volumes, where he depicts costumes. “I have given only what I have seen,” Solvyns has written. There were indeed fewer women on the streets in the areas Solvyns frequented. But there is more at play here—going back again to the Manusmriti laws he was told about. “In the code of Menu (sic), in other respects replete with precepts of wisdom, it is declared with great harshness, that women are incapable of independence, and it even seems to be insinuated that they are beings of an inferior order…” Solvyns writes.
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There are also some deviations from his claims that the prints were based on things he saw “on the spot”. Like the painting Rajah Of Tanjor, confusing because Solvyns never went to Tanjore. “Also, the Maratha Raja of Tanjore was very well known and this is not him. It seems like a copy of an Indian miniature featuring Alivardi Khan, the former nawab of Bengal, who ruled in the mid-18th century, before Solvyns came to Calcutta,” says Tillotson.
“This is not a ‘Hindoo Raja’ as he mentions. Solvyns seemed to have a blind spot when it came to elite Muslims. I am not being censorious of Solvyns. Any foreigner has a tough task coming to grips with Indian culture,” he adds.
As Tillotson notes, these omissions don’t take away from the fact that Solvyns chose to paint people of all levels, rather than focus on landscapes and monuments like his contemporaries.
Les Hindoûs is on display at Bikaner House, Delhi, till 20 August.