Published in The Times of India, December 26, 1982
“Les Hindous” shows not only Solvyns’ observant eye and mastery of his craft but also his profound love and knowledge of the Hindus and their manners and customs.
The first well known British painter to arrive in India was Tilly Kettle in 1769 and 1830, the number of British painters who came to India runs to hundreds as can be seen from Mildred Archer’s British Drawings in the India Office Library and her India and British portraiture. William Hodges, John Zoffany, Thomas and William Daniell, Robert Home, Robert Grindlay, George Chinnery, Charles Doyly, James Fraser and Emily Eden were amongst them. They revealed to the armchair tourists in England and Europe the various facets of India such as its natural scenery, its architectural grandeur, its old and new cities and towns. They confined themselves mainly to the picturesque and the splendid and to the life of the Europeans in India.
The Daniells in their Twelve Views of Calcutta, published in Calcutta (1786-1788) and in their Oriental Scenery and Picturesque Voyage to India by Way of China depicted exclusively the European Calcutta, which was then confined to an area of one square mile i.e. the present Dalhousie Square and some harbour scenes. The other famous depicters of Calcutta scenes such as Capt. William Baillie, James Fraser, William Wood Jr. also confined themselves to these scenes. The exception was Charles Doyly whose Calcutta and its Environs included some pictures of Indian festivals in Calcutta.
The reason why the British painters neglected to take notice of the ‘native’ Calcutta could be the rising feeling of racism that became a feature of the ascendant Raj. After the battle of Plassey they began to practice a policy of racism by adopting an attitude of disdain for everything Indian.
Consequently, the British artists who came to India under official auspices were not allowed or did not have the chance to mix with the Indians. Even those who came on their own or were residents of Calcutta, faced to a great degree the same constraints or imbibed, consciously or unconsciously, something of the racist attitude of the British rulers.
Against this backdrop, the names of Balthazar Solvyns and Madame Belnos stand out in splendid isolation. Solvyns was a French-speaking Belgian; Madame Belnos was French. They came to India as ‘interlopers’ in search of the exotic and, of course, money. Not being members of the ruling class they did not have a feeling of racial superiority over the Indians nor contempt for their culture. So, as they freely moved in and around Calcutta they found the life, manners, and customs of the Indians incomparably richer and more vibrant, more colourful and fascinating than the life in European Calcutta which was but a pale copy of the English way of life under a blazing tropical sun. Had it not been for Balthazar Solvyns, there would not have been any visual record of the ‘Black Town’ of Calcutta in the eighteenth century.
Balthazar Solvyns, born in Antwerp in 1760, began his career as a marine painter. Solvyns accompanied Home Popham, an English naval captain, on a voyage to the east in 1786 and eventually arrived in Calcutta in 1791. We first hear of him in Calcutta in connection with the British victory in the Third Mysore War. To celebrate the victory, the public buildings in Calcutta were decorated and illuminated and Solvyns painted a large commemorative picture to decorate the Government House ‘in a masterly manner’ as The Calcutta Gazette put it.
In the Calcutta Gazette of the 6th February 1794, Solvyns, advertised his plan for publishing two hundred and fifty engravings descriptive of the manners, customs and dresses of the natives of Bengal particularizing every character in the different castes, with the peculiar attributes of each.” The collection divided in twelve parts, was to be delivered each month to the subscribers. The advertisement ended with the following words: “The engravings will be equal to the originals taken from the nature, being all engraved in Aqua Fortis, and afterwards coloured by B. Solvyns. The size of the engravings to be 15 inches by 11 at one Sicca Rupee each, the total amount of subscription being 200 Sicca Rupees, to be paid at the time of subscribing.”
Solvyns was able to realize his plan between 1796 and 1799. The Costumes of Hindustan was printed and issued by the Mirror, Press, Calcutta. For painting the pictures he must have spent many days in the heart of north Calcutta and other areas observing people at work and leisure, talking to them and doing sketching on the spot. He did the engravings with the help of Indian assistants.
During his stay in Calcutta Solvyns earned his living by giving painting lessons in oil and water-colour and by cleaning and restoring old paintings. He also painted expensive palanquins and coaches for the famous old Calcutta coachmakers, Stewart and Company. Referring to this Baillie wrote contemptuously, “Solvyns had picked up a good deal of money, I believe from Stewart, the coachmaker, for embellishing palankeens etc.” When Solvyns left India towards the end of 1803, he took back with him Rs. 40,000, not an inconsiderable sum those days, and a rich English wife. On the return journey, the Solvynses were shipwrecked off the Spanish coast but luckily most of his notes and sketches were saved. Eventually they reached Paris in early 1804.
So, when he settled down in Paris, he decided to embark upon on magnum opus based on the vast number of sketches and the copious notes he brought back from India. After years of trial and huge expenditure, he published between 1808 and 1812 his monumental Les Hindous in four massive volumes containing 288 hand-coloured plates with explanatory notes in French and English for each plate. Les Hindous, was, as it were, a giant mirror reflecting life in the last decade of the eighteenth century ‘native’ Calcutta in all its varied facets.
The characters in their distinctive costumes include people from all walks of life. Another big category of plates comprises modes of transport. These include a wide variety of bullock carts, ranging from the ordinary to the ornate, palanquins of all sorts from the humble box-like contraption to the luxurious tanjam and even the European chair-type tonjon, horse-drawn carriages of various kinds and boats of all descriptions . . . .cargo boats, pleasure boats such as pinnaces, budgerows, hundred-aored peacock boats and so on.
Topographical and architectural engarvings include roads, street scenes, bazaar scenes, ghats on the Ganga houses of Indian and European, temples and other places of worship and many other subjects.
In a sense the engravings of the greatest interest relate to Solvyns’ portrayal of the human scene, the social and religious practices of the Hindus. We can see in the pages of Les Hindous men and women listening to the readings of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Puranas and the singing of devotional songs, participating in a wide variety of festivals like the Durga Puja, the car festival of Jagannath, Holy, Rash-jatra, Jhoolan Jatra, or the swing festival of Krishna, Charrack Puja or the hook-swinging festival and even purely feminine rituals like the nila puja. The social ceremonies shown include marriages, cremation rites including the suttee, sradh and many other rituals.
Les Hindous shows not only Solvyns’ observant eye and mastery of his craft but also his profound love and knowledge of the Hindus and their manners and customs. The notes he appended to each plate are full of facts and pieces of information which are little known today. For example in describing the boats he gives their local names, descriptions of the kinds of materials they carried, details of their shapes and carrying capacity, the types of wood used in their construction, the method in their construction and similar facts. These notes are particularly valuable as many of these boats that once plied that great untaxed highway of commerce, the Ganga have vanished from the scene. Les Hindous, to sum up, not only delights the eye but also instructs.
It is sad that Solvyns returned home to Antwerp. The Belgian Government honoured him by making him a captain of the Port of Antwerp, probably in recognition of his maritime paintings. But poverty dogged him to the last. Solvyns tried to raise money by disposing of the unsold copies of Les Hindous by means of a lottery which did not prove successful. Finally death came to him on 24th October, 1824.