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The Hindus: Caste Portraits Etched in History

by Aakshat Sinha

An encyclopaedic vision of the people and customs of Eastern India at the end of the eighteenth century are on display at Bikaner House, New Delhi. This is the first time that the vast series of 288 etchings titled Les Hindoûs by the Flemish artist François Baltazard Solvyns (1760-1824), who lived in Calcutta (now Kolkata) from 1791 to 1803 are on display all together in one venue. The show titled ‘The Hindus: Baltazard Solvyns in Bengal’ curated by Giles Tillotson and organized by Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) is an exhibition of the complete set of the Paris edition of the artist’s etchings.

While picking up odd jobs, Solvyns embarked on an ambitious project to produce a comprehensive survey of ‘the manners, customs, and dresses of the Hindus’. The first edition contained 250 hand-coloured etchings and was published by Solvyns between 1796 and 1799. Les Hindoûs was the second, enlarged edition containing 288 coloured plates which he published in Paris during 1808-12, which was differently arranged in four volumes, with bilingual descriptive text in French and English.

During an online session with Swapna Liddle (an independent scholar) and Tasneem Zakaria Mehta (of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum) held in conjunction with the exhibition, Giles Tillotson mentioned, that the six years that Solvyns frequented the streets of Calcutta, he sketched and captured live portraits of the local people whom he encountered. He chose to eschew naming these individuals and instead used them to represent their identities in the social structure. The clothes they wear and the surroundings help to decipher the role and place of this individual in the society. Giles also makes a note of the limited number of women portrayed in the works, which could be because of the cultural and societal restrictions imposed on women in public spaces. There are a few works of women who worked as wet-nurses or a nursery maids who are juxtaposes with ladies from high status seated in the comforts of their homes. This Giles attributes to Solvyns’ insistence to only draw the people he actually met.

At some point, Solvyns lost the set of copper plates of the first edition printed in India, so when he finally reached Paris and began work on his new edition, he had to again engrave every scene afresh. The first time round he worked directly from his finished watercolours (most of which are now in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London) with the result that in the prints the compositions appear as mirror images or in reverse. He probably worked from a copy of the Calcutta edition for the second edition, so that the compositions are restored to their original way round. He worked furiously, goaded in part by the appearance in 1804-05 of a pirated version brought out by the publishers Edward and William Orme. In the Preliminary Discourse to the first volume of his own new edition, published in Paris in 1808, he denounced Orme’s book as a ‘counterfeit’, and an ‘abuse’ of his name and work.

Modern audiences may see his work differently. It is an outsider’s view for sure. But it is an extraordinarily detailed and intimate portrait of a people at a given moment in history. In his work Solvyns includes representatives of almost all professions and every strata of Indian society. He depicts festivals and sacred rites; he shows us aspects of material culture, such as the plethora of musical instruments that were then in common use. Every person and object is observed minutely, with an informed and inquisitive eye, and is portrayed sometimes with wit, sometimes with a melancholy grandeur. The other artists who copied and plagiarised his images made them simpler and more attractive, and, unfortunately for him, sold better than he did. Solvyns appeals to us today precisely because he was a challenging artist, who did not seek to delight us, but to confront us, to engage us in a discussion about the world he shared in India for a while.

“In 1794, he announced his plan for A Collection of Two Hundred and Fifty Coloured Etchings: Descriptive of the Manners, Customs and Dresses of the Hindoos. A few copies of the collection was published in Calcutta in in 1796, and later in greater numbers in 1799. Divided into twelve parts, the first section, with 66 prints, depicts 'the Hindoo Casts, with their professions.' The following sections portray servants, costumes, means of transportation (carts, palanquins, and boats), modes of smoking, fakirs, musical instruments, festivals. The project proved to be a financial failure. The etchings, by contemporary European standards, were rather crudely done, and they did not appeal to the vogue of the picturesque. In 1803, Solvyns left India for France and soon redid the etchings for a folio edition of 288 plates, Les Hindoûs, published in Paris between 1808 and 1812 in four volumes. Even these sumptuous volumes failed commercially, falling victim to the unrest of the Napoleonic wars and to the sheer cost of the publication. When the Kingdom of the Netherlands was formed in 1814, Solvyns returned to his native Antwerp, where William I appointed him Captain of the Port in recognition of his accomplishments as an artist.” – quoted from Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr.'s article for the University of Texas at Austin.

One needs a lot of time to view the works on display to do full justice to them and give them the respect they deserve. The detailing in the etchings is phenomenal. The artist has captured the uniforms (fabric, texture, crease), the architecture (the lay of the land, the buildings, designs and motifs on the buildings, grills, balustrades, furniture, gardens), the celebrations and festivals (sources of light like the lamps and their shadows, different postures of the people sitting, standing, performing rituals), varied designs of boats in different stages of loading, the palanquin (many varieties reflecting the social status of the owner in the way it is carried and by the number of bearers), smoking apparatus (types of the hookah and other smoking paraphernalia), the wide range musical instruments being used on the streets of Bengal and in the courts and houses of the rich. And, finally, the most outstanding part of his work – the common people depicting their caste, status and their profession or nature of work.

One can obviously spend a lot of time enjoying the landscapes, architecture, festivals, and means of transport of a nation, but what is sometimes more interesting is the depiction of people from all walks of life, appropriately clothed for their role and in the midst of executing their work. Thomas and William Daniels’ landscapes from the late 18th century ( a similar time period as that of Solvyns) are certainly more noteworthy in terms of their artistic rendition and justifiably more famous too, but the way Solvyns has been able to capture the culture, customs, dresses (and even uniforms), and professions of the common people of India and the grandeur of public places (and not the upper class gentry who could have commissioned their portraits) is par excellence.

Solvyns has etched and painted the Cheroutery brahman [Srotriya Brahmin or a learned Brahmin], Causto [Kayastha/writer, accountant], Bannean [Bania/trader], Djemedar [Jamadar/here valet or chamberlain] Khitmetgar [Khidmatgar/table server], Hhouqa-Berdar [Hookah bearer] Bhichty [Bhishti/carrier of water in mashak, a goatskin bag], Dhouby [Dhobi/washerman], Dourzy [Darji/tailor], Routy-Walla [Rotiwala/roti maker], Mok'hen-Walla [Makkhanwala], Says [Sayees/groom to tend to horses], Bawerdjy [Bawarchi/cook], Balber [Barber/Hajaam], G'hacyara [Ghasyara/grass cutter for horses], Doury [Doriya/dog keeper], Koura-Berdar [one who used Koda or whip to flog other servants], Ayah [Ayah/nursery maid] , Day [Dai/wet-nurse], Tchoukydar [Chowkidar/night watchman], Mahter and Mahteranny [sweeper and his wife] – the list goes on and on.

The attire, the things that they carry, and the surroundings of the individuals help us to understand the nature of work and their status. There are many who have special uniforms they wear to distinguish them from the others while most are clad in dhotis and a cloth to cover their bodies. Interestingly, the individuals are posing for the artist and most are clearly at work. One wonders if the artist was able to communicate with their muse despite the language barrier that must have been there. Strangely, none of them seem to have even a hint of a smile; most look forlorn and sad. Many of them have very similar features except for the facial hair and some who wear different headgear.

The decade that Solvyns spent in and around Calcutta was used extensively by him to move around to capture the common Indians at work in his etchings. For anyone looking at these works today, they serve as a valuable documentation of the people of the times gone by, and we . should be indebted to the artist for this. Even the works that feature Ramayan Gayn [Ramayan gaan/Narration of Ramayan], Mohabharat Chobha [Mahabharat sabha], or Routh Jatrah [Rath Yatra] seem to present simply a record of the event on how it was held, how the people involved conducted it and how the devotees were seated or stood while witnessing it. Solvyns is undoubtedly one of the few foreigners who captured Indians in the Eastern provinces in their elements, with a focus on their caste-based occupations, albeit from an outsider’s eye.

Solvyns own words make for an interesting question to ponder on,

“What spectacle more interesting or more deserving of our attention, than the remains of a celebrated nation inhabiting one of the most delightful countries of Asia, and treasuring up as a sacred deposit, the simplicity of its antique virtues, in the midst of universal corruption and the refinements of foreign civilization?”

It is cruel that even after three centuries since these works were created, India is still a nation struggling with the toxicity of caste discrimination. The show is a MUST SEE as it is definitely one place where we can verify how little the nation has progressed on equality for all.

The show is on display at Bikaner House, New Delhi till 20 August 2021.

(All photographs taken by Aakshat Sinha at the Bikaner House, courtesy of Delhi Art Gallery DAG.)


Aakshat Sinha is an artist and curator. He also writes poetry and has created and published comics. He is the Founding Partner of artamour.

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