August 17, 2021 10:30:18 am
Between 1808 and 1812, Flemish artist Baltazard Solvyns published a collection of 288 etchings across four volumes. It was the second edition of a work called Les Hindoûs (The Hindus), and expanded his previous publication from 1796. The pages of Les Hindoûs are populated mostly with the men of Bengal clad in impeccable white dhotis and gamchas, their caste marks branded on their burnished faces and their expressions sombre and sometimes melancholic. There is a mochi outside his leather workshop, a Mahabharata sabha in progress, soldiers and ascetics, an indigo dye manufacturer, among them. With text in English and French, Solvyns was introducing the various castes, professions and caste-based professions in the East India Company’s most important centre in India, almost like a yesteryear “Humans of Bengal”.
DAG, a gallery with spaces in Delhi, Mumbai and New York, procured one of the second editions in Europe and has displayed the pages at an ongoing exhibition titled “The Hindus: Baltazard Solvyns in Bengal”. The exhibition will run till August 20 at Bikaner House, Delhi. At first glance, it is an outsider’s view of Indians, or specifically Bengalis, and Indian audiences are now known to be a little wary of such representations. But curator Giles Tillotson argues that Solvyns was “revolutionary for his time”.
Solvyns was born in Antwerp, in the Austrian Netherlands, in 1760. Trained as a marine painter, in July 1790, he set out on a journey to India, as had several artists before him who had met with success in the colonies of the East India Company. But, Solvyns hopes didn’t go as planned. For starters, he had failed to obtain permission from the Company’s board of directors to live in Bengal. Worse, the captain of the ship he was travelling on was engaged in illegal trade. On reaching Calcutta, Solvyns could have well been deported but was permitted to stay on as an unlicensed resident. All this meant that Solvyns never really became a part of Calcutta’s bustling European circles in the manner in which, say, as artist Thomas Daniell had.
Tillotson, who is senior vice president, exhibitions and publications at DAG, says that Daniell had arrived in India ahead of Solvyns and was barely a British gentleman. He was the son of an innkeeper and a coach painter but was immediately accepted into membership at Calcutta’s Asiatic Society and was befriended by East India Company officials. “British society in Calcutta was probably socially more open than British society in London,” he says. In contrast, Solvyns’ dishonourable landing in the city allowed him no such footing.
Solvyns was thus pushed to the fringes of mainstream painting establishment at that time, which was mainly portraits of Europeans and picturesque landscapes. It’s a conjecture into what makes this artist distinctive from his peers, in what seems like a happy accident. Tillotson says that the artist would have been dining with European friends every night and seeking permission to paint their portraits, but none of that happened.
What happened instead is that Solvyns moved among Indians, relatively more than his contemporaries, even if just as an observer. In Les Hindoûs, he introduces Bengal’s rich material culture, in the form of musical instruments, transportations, and even objects of leisure, such as hookahs and narials. There are observations of customs and cultural traditions, from a fantastic tableau of the immersion of a Kali statue to sati, which never failed to entice the European eye. Equally stunning are his etchings of boats and ships, following the practice he was trained in.
Among the many castes that Solvyns presents, there are no less than five brahmins and one shudra, according to oppressive caste practices that are followed even today. The exhibition doesn’t fail to note that any Indian viewer will watch out for Solvyns’ possible Orientalist gaze, but asks us to consider a Bengali Brahminical attitude that the painter also seems to convey. Tilloston points out that if Solvyns was moving about Bengal, learning about Indians, it’s possible that his main source was information about the upper, oppressor castes of Bengal. “His art shows us an insight not just on how Europeans saw Indian society but also how groups of Indians saw it at that time. He follows the idea that Indian society is structured according to the Laws of Manu, an elite Bengali worldview that he is going to get from a Brahmin rather than a Shudra. He seems to also regard this as something fixed. What’s most challenging is to see whether these attitudes—Orientalist or Brahminical—and see what it tells us about our own views,” says Giles, adding that much of Solvyns’ text in Les Hindoûs is factual and reliable.
Even as an outsider to both the Indian and European communities, Solvyns hardly presents his portraits as comical. Irrespective of class or occupation, the figures are imbued with a sense of purpose and duty and never shown as idlers or drifters. Even the act of hookah smoking is a serious preoccupation in Solvyns’ eyes. Tilloston writes in the exhibition’s catalogue essay that copies of the first edition of Les Hindoûs were picked up by Indian painters with British patrons (Company painters, as they were called), who would represent India’s castes and trades following Solvyns’ fashion.
If Thomas and William Daniell were regarded as the best experts on Indian architecture to European audiences in their time, then Solvyns was the best expert on Indian people—not Anglo-Indians, but the people who formed the core of Calcutta’s Black Town. Tilloston says, “He wasn’t interested in the ancient culture of India in the form of monuments but the living people — a whole spectrum of society and quite a lot of those were in the lower end of society. If his audience expects a view of Indian people to focus on nawabs and maharajas, then yes, there are two rajahs, both of them a little questionable in different ways, but endless in portraits of grass cutters and sweepers and porters. His willingness to include a sweeper not as a tiny detail in a composition but as the main portrait.”
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