Intimate portrait of Calcutta by Solvyns


In July 1790, Baltazard Solvyns, a young marine painter, undertook a trip to India to escape the political troubles of northern Europe and make a fortune. He came aboard the Etrusco, commanded by Captain Home Popham, which was engaged in an illegal trade which ignored the East India Company’s monopoly. It was mandatory to obtain permission from the company’s board in London to live in Bengal, but due to being on board L’Etrusco, Solvyns was unable to do so.

Although he managed to enter Calcutta (now Kolkata), he was not accepted into European society and lived on the fringes around Tank Square, a congested area that most Europeans avoided. “It worked to our advantage because he ended up interacting with Indians on the streets a lot more than other Europeans. While doing 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 only depicted things he had seen in his immediate environment.”

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This resulted in 250 hand-coloured etchings, published in Calcutta between 1796 and 1799. It failed commercially, however, and had to return to Europe. In Paris, he published an enlarged edition, organized by theme, between 1808-12. The four volumes had text in French and English and a few additional plates, bringing the number of engravings to 288.

‘Bazar’ (Market), 1811, from the book ‘The Hindus: Baltazard Solvyns in Bengal’. Photographs courtesy DAG

Now DAG is exhibiting this complete series, titled The Hindus of Solvyns, at Bikaner House, Delhi, for the first time. “Solvyns is not very well known, except by a few specialists. Most people have heard of Thomas and William Daniell, who made picturesque landscapes,” explains Tillotson, curator of the exhibition. “A large number of European artists at this time were portrait painters, who painted the wealthy and powerful functionaries of the Company or moguls. But Solvyns was unique because he focused on the ordinary, ordinary people he encountered on the streets of Calcutta.

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Many of the portraits exude a melancholic and dark mood. As the Guallahs (buta) of volume 1, which shows a cowherd in a loincloth, looking contemplative and leaning on a small stick, with a chattahor an umbrella, in his hand.

Solvyns depicts different professions as well as those who have abandoned worldly life, parties, ceremonies, material culture and costumes. “In the 18th century, when Solvyns lived in Calcutta, India’s relations with Europe were not on an equal footing. But 200 years later, we can return his gaze with serenity and ease, to explore not only what his depiction of India tells us about him, but also whether we can learn something about ourselves from it,” says Ashish. Anand, CEO and Managing Director, DAG.

Many engravings show Solvyns’ own relationship with people in his environment. In one, we see him surrounded by Indian figures, in conversation with a woman in a flowered shawl. “Although he doesn’t say as much, he may have intended it to represent the Indo-Portuguese community,” Tillotson notes in the book that accompanies the exhibition and contextualizes Solvyns’ work. Festivals and ceremonies are depicted on double-page plates, like a Brahmin discoursing on the Mahabharat or a recitation of 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,” says Tillotson.

'Nauhyr' (ahir), 1808, from the book 'The Hindus: Baltazard Solvyns in Bengal'.  Photographs courtesy DAG

‘Nauhyr’ (ahir), 1808, from the book ‘The Hindus: Baltazard Solvyns in Bengal’. Photographs courtesy DAG

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The Hindus also offers an overview of the objects and tools 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 smoking implements (plates 66 to 68 ),” writes Tillotson. Solvyns, he adds, included them not only to present a fuller sense of the way of life of the people he portrayed, but also because he believed they exemplified and supported his idea that Hindu civilization was ancient and immutable.

Although Solvyns creates intimate and insightful portraits, they are not necessarily complete representations of the society of the time. Tillotson notes: “As the title of his book bluntly states, he focuses on Hindus who, despite internal distinctions and hierarchies, seem in his account to inhabit a homogeneous world, very little touched by people of other faiths or nationalities.”

The reason, he says, could be that Solvyns seems to have obtained most of his information about Hindu society from Bengali Brahmins. “He basically swallows that Indian society is almost entirely based on the laws of Manu, or Manusmriti. As works of art, they are great portraits of people. But you should be aware of omissions, such as that of elite Muslims.

The other omission concerns women – there are very few portraits, mostly in later volumes, where he depicts costumes. “I only gave what I saw,” Solvyns wrote. There were indeed fewer women in the streets of the neighborhoods frequented by Solvyns. But there’s more at stake here – going back to the Manusmriti laws he was told about. “In the code of Menu (sic), otherwise laden with precepts of wisdom, it is declared with great harshness that women are incapable of independence, and it even seems to insinuate that they are beings of a certain order. lower…” writes Solvyns.

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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 Rajah Of Tanjor painting, confusing because Solvyns never went to Tanjore. “Furthermore, the Maratha Raja of Tanjore was very well known and it is not him. It looks like a copy of an Indian miniature depicting Alivardi Khan, the former Nabob of Bengal, who reigned in the mid-eighteenth century, before Solvyns came to Kolkata,” says Tillotson.

“He’s not a ‘Hindoo Raja’ as he mentions. Solvyns seemed to have a blind spot when it comes to elite Muslims. I’m not criticizing Solvyns. Any foreigner has the difficult task of acquainting himself with the culture Indian,” he adds.

As Tillotson notes, these omissions do not detract from the fact that Solvyns chose to paint people of all skill levels, rather than focusing on landscapes and monuments like his contemporaries.

The Hindus are on display at Bikaner House, Delhi, until August 20.


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