Sophie Charlotte Belnos (1795-1865) was one of the first European women living in India to take up painting as a profession. Not much is known about her early life beyond the fact that she was born in Calcutta and married a French miniature painter called Jean-Jacque Belnos. From a relatively young age, evidently, she was drawn to the world of Hindu rituals and religious ceremonies that she would have witnessed in Calcutta; and this remained an enduring theme throughout her artistic career. For printing the images of brahmins and puja rituals that she drew with painstaking attention to detail, she used the recently invented and fairly complex technique of lithography, which required the use of stone or metal surfaces; and her first book of paintings, titled Twenty-four Plates Illustrative of Hindoo and European Manners in Bengal, came out in 1832. This book comprised a series of incredibly vibrant, lively images depicting Hindus participating in a range of rituals (such as undergoing ablution by the Ganga, bringing mortally ill people to the river so that they could rest beside it, and so on), sketched with not just precision but also evident fascination and empathy. Her husband provided her technical assistance in bringing this project to fruition. Her magnum opus, The Sundhya, or, the Daily Prayers of the Brahmins, came out in 1852, by which time she had, remarkably, set up a lithographic press of her own in Calcutta.
However, we might well wonder why a well-connected colonial memsahib, living in the capital of the politically ascendant British Indian empire, found herself so powerfully drawn to the world of Hindu devotional practices. The answer to this surely lies, to some extent, in Belnos’ personal idiosyncrasies, but it is equally important to consider the vogue for studying Hinduism among the British Orientalists living in Calcutta. Ever since the illustrious William Jones, founder of the Asiatic Society and indefatigable Indophile, had declared that the philosophy of the Hindus was as rich and sublime as anything to be found in Europe, a vast number of Europeans had devoted themselves to the study of ancient Sanskrit texts. They were interested not only in learning about what the Hindus were like at the dawn of their civilization, but also in unraveling the ‘mystery’ of the religious traditions which flourished among contemporary Hindus. And in doing so, they actively sought the help of Hindu pandits. While some of their compatriots derided men like Charles Wilkins (the translator of the Bhagavad Gita into English) as “Sanskrit-mad”, others, like the East India Company officer Charles “Hindoo” Stuart, were irresistibly drawn to this newly ‘discovered’, apparently mystical religion. Stuart, for instance, not only started dressing up like the Hindus, but he also regularly offered prayers to the various Hindu deities, collected and worshipped their idols, and even visited the Ganga daily for ritual ablutions.
This, in short, was the socio-cultural milieu which Belnos inhabited. While British attitudes towards Hinduism and India itself, in general, gradually hardened over the course of the nineteenth century, there were always some Britons who considered the Hindu scriptures to be invaluable and the pandits to be repositories of arcane sacred knowledge. It is, thus, not very surprising after all that a British woman living in the culturally hybrid entrepôt of early nineteenth-century Calcutta would wish to illustrate the rituals, prayers, and religious practices of the brahmins, especially for the benefit of those who were inclined to look at Hinduism as an immemorial, sublime religion.
What, however, is surprising is the breathtaking detail in which she sketches not just the brahmins’ puja paraphernalia, but also their hand gestures, facial expressions, and overall posture at the time of performing their rites. Such a task, to be sure, involved considerable difficulties. We are told that the Calcutta brahmins firmly refused to “perform those rites in my presence, or impart to a female, and an impure European, any of the mysteries of their religion.” It was only when Belnos travelled to northern India, especially to the holy city of Benaras, that she found priests who were willing to let her sketch them while they performed their rituals. And Belnos made ample use of this opportunity. She observed and delineated them with such superb attentiveness that some of the plates of her 1852 Sundhya comprised images depicting specifically the fingers, eyes, and mouths of the priests while they chanted their mantras and performed pujas. This tendency to visually anatomize the brahmins’ body while they prayed might make us uncomfortable because of the nature of the colonial, ethnographic gaze directed at them; and Belnos, indeed, might be seen as a proto-ethnographer attempting to impart to her countrymen a knowledge of the ‘exotic’ Indian priests. But the sheer effort she put behind a project which was not directly linked to or financed by the East India Company, and her evident desire to learn about a religion whose priests often regarded her as an outcaste, indicate a deeper, profounder fascination with Hindu traditions, which we would be amiss to regard only as the result of an ethnographic impulse.