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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Bauluck and Brahmun

The year was 1791. Little-known Flemish artist Francois Balthazar Solvyns landed in Kolkata from Antwerp.

Written by Pallavi Pundir |
May 20, 2012 12:16:33 am

The year was 1791. Little-known Flemish artist Francois Balthazar Solvyns landed in Kolkata from Antwerp. Fascinated with what he saw,he decided to document the Indians living around him,drawing etchings of the “natives” in their caste-specific garb,and others playing traditional musical instruments. Probably one of the first accounts of the Indian society and its people,his ambitious project titled A Collection of Two Hundred and Fifty Coloured Etchings Descriptive of the Manners,Customs and Dresses of the Hindoos was published in a series comprising 12 volumes,in Kolkata,from 1796 to 99. Unfortunately,the work was a financial failure. The collection,perhaps,did not appeal to the dominant European community,who found the etchings to be “crude” and “rough”.

Disappointed,Solvyns left for Europe in 1803. He reworked the etchings in the publication Les Hinduos,that was released in Paris between 1808 and 1812. Few copies of the account remain today. Now,a part of the collection has been reprinted from a copy of the book that was procured by Delhi-based publishing house Aryan Book International from a private dealer in London. Titled The Costume of Hindostan,this will be released at the India International Centre (IIC) on May 25 and will be accompanied by an exhibition that will feature 60 enlarged etchings from the book. “Even though Solvyns is not as prominent as other artists of the time,his work is significant in documenting the period. These are probably the first images of Hindustan,” says Vikas Arya,director of Aryan Book International.

The 60 etchings are a curious collection of Indians in the 18th century,dressed distinctively and engaged in various activities. The preface of the book notes that Solvyns aimed for his accounts to be useful for Indians as well as for “Gentlemen” who used to reside in India. He notes that “this present race of Hindoos are known for their primitive manners (which) have been preserved amongst them by an immutable attachment to their ancient religion”. His documentation also points out that though the descriptions are specific to people in Bengal,they also apply to the rest of the country.

Through the descriptions,one can draw an interesting picture of the past. If ‘Bauluck’ was the name given to dancing boys “who often perform female parts in their dramas”,the ‘Hidgras’ (hermaphrodites) were “extraordinary beings,frequently met with in India”. The social hierarchy is seen through observations of various castes like ‘Chittery’,who were “in eminence next to the Brahmun” and employed by the Mughal government. A “species of watchmen” were called ‘Brijbasi’,and were often employed by merchants and bankers.

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The exhibition will also feature etchings of what were possibly the earliest forms of traditional Indian musical instruments. While ‘Sittara’ is an instrument “capable of tranquillising the most boisterous disposition”,the ‘Jultrung’ is a set of earthen cups “adapted to different notes of music and played on by two sticks or pieces of iron”. These works,points out Arya,“Are just the gist of the whole works by Solvyns.”

The exhibition will take place at IIC from May 25 to May 31. The book is priced at Rs 3,600. Contact: 23287589.

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