Bringing back memories of Hindostan

Bringing back memories of Hindostan

Bringing back memories of Hindostan

An exhibition of 18th-century coloured engravings by François Balthazar Solvyns, based on the new reprint edition of The Costumes of Hindostan is on at the India International Centre.

Born in Antwerp, Solvyns came to Kolkata in 1791, and in 1794 began work on a collection of colour-printed stipple engravings intended to record ‘the manners, customs and dresses of the Hindoos’.

Accompanied by descriptive text, these plates depicted different castes, costumes and various aspects of social and cultural life: means of transport, modes of smoking, musical instruments and various festivals.

Aryan Books International (ABI) has came out with the reprint edition of ‘The Costume of Hindostan’. The exhibition had on display 60 engravings/sketches of the locals in their costumes, occupation and cultural life like aheers, bhistis, barbers, astrologers, etc.,
along with detailed descriptions of each, as given by the artist himself in English.

The exhibition will also travel to Bangalore and possibly to Mumbai and Kolkata. “It’s a very realistic portrayal – as close as you can get. He observed his surroundings keenly and recreated them remaining loyal to reality. For instance in palkiwala, Solvyns hasn’t missed out on the keys of the bearer which is such a minute detail,” says Vikas Arya of ABI. Through the descriptions, one can draw an interesting picture of the past. If ‘Bauluck’ was the name given to dancing boys ‘who often perform female parts in their dramas’, the ‘Hidgras’ (hermaphrodites) were ‘extraordinary beings, frequently met with in India’.
The social hierarchy was seen through observations of various castes like ‘Chittery’, who were ‘in eminence next to the Brahmin’ and employed by the Mughal government.

A ‘species of watchmen’ were called ‘Brijbasi’, and were often employed by merchants and bankers. The exhibition featured etchings of what were possibly the earliest forms of traditional Indian musical instruments like ‘Sittara’, the ‘Jultrung’, a set of earthen cups adapted to different notes of music and played on by two sticks or pieces of iron. These works, pointed out Arya, “are just the gist of the whole works by Solvyns.”

Solvyns struggled to find a place in the European society of the time, which was largely dominated by the works of European painters based in India.

“None of his books did well. His first book failed because there was a war followed by recession. Even the ‘Les Hindous’, now considered so crucial, failed miserably. Among the number of factors responsible for this, one is that unlike the others who were doing picturesque scenes and architectural imagery, he was concentrating on the ordinary man,” says Vikas, who sourced the original book through a dealer.

“We have tried to remain as close to the original book as possible,” he adds. While the original is said to be priced in lakhs, the reprint edition was available for Rs 3,600. During the exhibition, though, art lovers can avail a special discount and own this masterpiece for Rs. 3,000. The exhibition is on till 31 May, between 11 am - 7 pm.