What Solvyns saw in India

21 April,2024 06:17 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Team SMD

Flemish artist F Baltazard Solvyns, who arrived in India in the 1790s, was scared of banias, ignored the Muslim elite, and focused on the servants because with them “the picture of their domestic life would not have been complete”. A delightful exhibit displays his portraits of people and professions.

Cocher (coachman) The coachmen in India are all Mussulmans, and wear the turban and girdle of the same colour as those of the other servants of the house, says Solvyns’ record. Pic Courtesy/The DAG Collection

Born in Antwerp, in the Austrian Netherlands, in 1760, Baltazard Solvyns trained as a marine painter. To escape political unrest in northern Europe, and in the hope of making his fortune, he embarked on a journey to India in July 1790. Though undertaken more in hope than expectation, his plan was not outlandish: numerous English artists had succeeded in making at least a living, and some had prospered in India. But Solvyns travelled on board L'Etrusco, a ship that was owned and commanded by Captain Home Popham, sailing from Ostend, and that put him in a compromising position. Captain Popham was engaging in illegal trade that ignored the East India Company's monopoly; and Solvyns had failed to obtain permission from the Company's board of directors in London to live in Bengal, as was required by law.

Neither man was subjected to any serious legal penalty, as officials on the ground in Calcutta were willing to overlook such infractions, but Solvyns's status as an unlicensed resident did limit the extent to which he was accepted into European society in the city. He was, for example, not invited to attend meetings of the Asiatic Society, which - given his curiosity about Indian civilization - he would certainly have wished to do.7 And he lived at a succession of addresses in central Calcutta around Tank Square, at a time when most Europeans were trying to escape this congested area and heading for what was then the spacious suburb of Chowringhee. If not quite excluded, he lived somewhat on the margins of the city's European world, and in closer contact with its Indian quarters. Exploring Chitpore and other native districts, and meeting local residents to assemble the material for his great work, he learnt far more about the Indian life of Calcutta than did most other Europeans of his time, who knew it chiefly through interaction with their servants. It is this position apart, away from the stand-offish Brits, and his immersion in Indian life, that his self-depiction in his image of ‘Nations différentes' seems to hint at.

Bannean (bania): The Bannyan is the chief of domestics, a sort of superintendent or steward of the household, and transacts in short the business of his master; (right) Causto (kayastha): They write very well, even the langauges of the foreign nations who trade in India and are frequently employed… in all commercial relations

A handful of Europeans - and again specifically English, we may presume - appear in another print depicting part of central Calcutta (plate 2). The man in the centre foreground, with his back to us, seems to be accompanied by the same woman with a shawl who features in Nations différentes. To their left, three gentlemen have paused for a chat, while, to the right, another passes by on a horse. Beyond these few, the street is crowded with Indian figures going about their various vocations. But the main subject of this plate - as the text makes clear - is not people but architecture. The view looks westwards down Lal Bazaar, towards the old fort, with the Magistrates' Court in the right foreground.9 It is these buildings that Solvyns here wants to show us. The European inhabitants of the city feature in only one other print in the series (as we shall see).

Their presence is felt more by implication. Volume IV includes 36 plates - amounting to half of the volume - depicting domestic servants; and while many of these are of types that would also have been employed by wealthy Indian residents of Calcutta, some are named and defined as they would have been encountered in European households. The first, for example, is a superintendent, who manages the salaries of the other staff and conducts business on behalf of his employer, and is called a ‘bannyan' (plate 3) - not a vest; this was an Anglo-Indian term derived from bania. Solvyns warns his unwary audience that: ‘The Bannyans are in general dangerous persons, on account of the great expense in which they involve their employers, and whom they very soon contrive to ruin, without ever forgetting to secure their own private interests. Europeans who land for the first time in India, cannot be cautioned too much against the Bannyans'. Unfortunately, as he goes on to say, you cannot get any work done without them. This was by no means an eccentric view: the historian Percival Spear confirms that indignation against ‘the deceit of the banian' was widespread.

Mejana (miyana): The Mejana is almost always carried by Begalies or Doulias. The nackground represents a Hindoo house of very simple structure, although belonging to a rich master. Pics Courtesy/The DAG Collection

The sole duty of a khidmatgar is to stand behind his employer's chair and wait at table (plate 4); but the glimpse of his master's coat reveals that this one works for a European. The series on castes and occupations that fills the whole of Volume I includes a kayastha (or Causto, plate 5). This writer caste is of medieval origin or earlier, and is certainly no colonial construct. But Solvyns says that the majority of people who called themselves kayasthas in Calcutta in his time worked for European or Armenian merchants; and the one he portrays uses European furniture. His comment that they are ‘assiduous but slow at their work' again plainly reflects a prevailing European assessment.

The European presence is further apparent in aspects of the material culture that Solvyns depicts. A miyana is a traditional design of palki, common across India, that anyone might use (plate 6). Although the name literally means ‘medium-sized', surviving examples vary in size and degrees of comfort with some courtly miyanas being very sumptuous. The box-like ‘long palanquin' (plate 7) also varied in cost and quality, but was a distinctive type introduced by Europeans and used only by them. Similarly, the chair palki or sedan (plate 8) was a European adaptation of an earlier Indian type of conveyance called a bocha. The foreign nature of the latter two objects is emphasised by the architectural backgrounds of the plates. They were a common sight on the streets of the city in the decades around 1800.

Solvyns comments that numerous European coach builders made fortunes through building carriages and palanquins. It was a trade he knew well: when not in demand as an artist, he could always pick up some work as a coach-painter.

Excerpted with permission from Giles Tillotson from the book, The Hindus, accompanying the DAG exhibition, People of Bengal: Coloured Etchings by Baltazard Solvyns, that opens at Dr Bhau Daj Lad Museum on April 27

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