François Balthazar Solvyns (1760-1824), a Flemish painter who spent more than a decade of his life in Calcutta, is best remembered today for his vast collection of ethnographic sketches featuring the inhabitants of Bengal. He was born in Antwerp, where he spent several years as a marine painter, and it was only in 1791 that he arrived in Calcutta. He, however, did not enjoy the direct patronage of the East India Company, unlike his more illustrious contemporaries such as Hodges and the Daniells; and he had to work assiduously to support himself while he undertook his project of surveying and sketching the different ‘kinds’ of Indians he encountered in the streets of Calcutta. His project culminated in the publication of his voluminous book of paintings, A Collection of Two Hundred and Fifty Coloured Etchings: Descriptive of the Manners, Customs and Dresses of the Hindoos (1796), which included, apart from the things enumerated in the title, sketches also of the various popular festivals and fairs celebrated by the Hindus of Bengal. However, the project was not commercially successful. He returned to Europe in 1803, where he kept revising his text and publishing updated versions of it during the next few years, but he failed to achieve either renown or financial success during his lifetime.
Notwithstanding this lukewarm response to his works, it is difficult to overstate their significance as visual records of the socio-cultural world of late eighteenth-century Bengal, a world which was on the cusp of momentous transformations. Snapshot-like in their precision, and dazzlingly heterogeneous in terms of the subjects they depict, his sketches freeze in time,
as it were, the unfamiliar world he encountered on his arrival at Calcutta. But more significantly, they allow us a glimpse into those parts of Calcutta which we seldom encounter in the works of contemporary artists – instead of depicting the grand, Palladian mansions of the British, or the monuments dotting the ‘white town’ (that part of Calcutta where the British chiefly resided), Solvyns devoted himself to the documentation of the streets, bazaars, houses, temples, and sundry other places inhabited almost exclusively by natives. His travels through the ‘black town’ and his navigation of its communal spaces enabled him to sketch Indians engaged in their day-to-day work, and to understand the rhythms of their daily life. It is true that his gaze, like that of other European artists who painted Indian subjects, is objectifying; but it cannot be denied that his works evince a genuine attempt on his part to grasp how Indians lived, worked, celebrated their festivals, and organised their civic life.
It must, however, be remembered that Solvyns, in all probability, did not accomplish this monumental project on his own. The copious information he provides in his book about the customs, rituals, and caste hierarchies of contemporary Hindu society could surely not have been obtained without inputs provided by the Indians themselves. It was possibly some Indian intermediary who facilitated his access to native houses and bazars (there is, for instance, a sketch of a ‘respectable’ Hindu woman lounging in her house, and it is unlikely that he would have been admitted into such intimate domestic spaces simply on his own). Besides, his tendency to categorize the Indians he encountered not merely on the basis of their profession but also their specific caste identity must have been influenced by the idea that caste was the primary organising principle of Hindu society – an idea which he surely could not have obtained without conversing with the Hindus themselves. In some cases, Solvyns mentions in the caption not just the caste, but even the particular sub-caste of his subject, providing also copious notes evidently derived from his interaction with the natives. Thus, the lens through which he saw and made sense of the social organisation of the Hindus was the result of what might only be called an intellectual collaboration. Yet, he never credits any Indian as co-author of the descriptive parts of his book; neither does he acknowledge that much of the knowledge about Bengal presented by him was obtained through communication with the natives themselves.
Besides, while his vivid descriptions and sketches do reveal a lot about his responses to the new world he found himself in, they also raise several questions to which no answer can be found. We do not know, for instance, anything about the identity of the Indians he so painstakingly sketched apart from the bits of information he feels important enough to provide, information mostly related to their caste or their vocation. Who, after all, was the “woman of distinction” who posed for him in her fineries, inside the female quarters of the house (see image below)? Why did she consent to being sketched by Solvyns, and what might her impression of the whole process have been like? Such questions are mostly elided by Solvyns, who provides us only the finished product, the image itself, without shedding much light on the deliberations, negotiations, and manoeuvring that evidently went into the making of the image. We encounter in Solvyns’ text a profound silence about the lifeworld of both the Indian intermediaries who facilitated his project and of the sitters who posed for him.
Thus, the simplicity of Solvyns’ images is deceptive indeed. His text conceals as such as, or perhaps even more than, it reveals; and while appreciating the fact that he pioneered the tradition of preparing naturalistic sketches of ‘ordinary’ Indians and their day-to-day activities, we also need to read his text against the grain, to uncover the silences it contains.