Among all attempts by foreign artists to present a complete view of India, none is so focused on people as the work of François Baltazard Solvyns (1760-1824). While others set out to record its scenery, or architecture, or flora and fauna, Solvyns gives us a series of portraits of individuals, going about their trades and professions. True, he is selective: his focus is on the Hindus of Bengal and neighbouring regions, where he lived and worked for over a decade, starting in 1791. But it is a varied and voluminous set. Published in Paris between 1808 and 1812, Les Hindoûs (‘The Hindus’) contains 288 coloured etchings, in four volumes. Along with the artist’s descriptions in French and English, they present an encyclopaedic vision of the ‘customs, costumes and ceremonies’ of the people of eastern India at the end of the 18th century.

One of the prints is labelled, in French, ‘Nations différentes’. In the accompanying text, under the English title ‘Of the nations most known in Hindoostan’, Solvyns explains his purpose: ‘To give the public an idea of the sight which an Indian town offers to a traveller, I have brought together in this print all the different costumes which are there met with. In the foreground is a Hindoo with his wife, a man of upper Hindoostan, a Mussulman, a Mogul, a Persian, an Arabian, a Mug, a Chinese, a Malay, an Arminian, some Europeans …’

Quite apart from the elision of nation, community and costume, there are oddities about this image and his description of it. When he says ‘an Indian town’ – and in the French version, only slightly more precisely, ‘une grande ville de l’Inde’ – he really means Calcutta, the only Indian town he knew well, and the only one likely to host such a cosmopolitan crowd in the 1790s, when he drew the scene. The placement of the print in the series might also seem odd. Coming at the end of Volume III, it can serve neither as an introduction to types of people who will be examined in greater detail later, nor as a concluding summary of them. But in fact, Solvyns cannot have meant it as either, for it bears little relation to the rest of his book. The various communities shown here hardly feature elsewhere. As his book’s title frankly declares, his focus is on the Hindus, who – despite internal distinctions and hierarchies – seem in his account of them to inhabit a homogeneous world, very little touched by people of other faiths or nationality.

A close up view of 'Nation differentes' (different nations), a coloured etching tinted with watercolour on paper, Vol. III, number 12, plate 5, 1811, 36 x 25 cm, courtesy DAG.

I will return later to his understanding and presentation (in both word and image) of Indian Muslims. Of the exotic foreigners included here, only the ‘Mug’ gets another passing reference. ‘Magh’ is a historical term for ethnic Burmese residents of the coastal region to the south of Chittagong. Solvyns mentions them as typically providing the crew for a coastal vessel known as a kosa. He calls them ‘a dirty and disgusting people, but strong and skilful’ – no doubt thinking himself even-handed. The ‘Mug’ here is probably the figure shown in profile, standing next to the Chinese man in a straw hat.

At the extreme right, two Europeans – specified as Englishmen, in the text – stand under parasols held aloft by their servants. One has his back to us and the other is looking down, so we cannot see their faces. What identifies them – and what matters – is their clothes, though Solvyns concedes that a drawing made in 1790, twenty years before he published it as a print, might be out of date, ‘on account of the constant changes in European fashions’. By implication, the same problem does not beset the depiction of Asian costume, which is unchanging.

The third European, set apart from the others, in the centre left of the image, and seen very clearly in profile, is recognizably Solvyns himself. He is surrounded by Indian figures and is apparently in conversation with a woman in a floral shawl, whose uncovered hair is tied in a bun. Though he does not say as much, he perhaps intended her to represent the Indo-Portuguese community, who he mentions elsewhere. This miniature self-portrait, whether intentionally or not, points to a significant truth about Solvyns and his circumstances.

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.

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.

An excerpt from essay by Giles Tillotson from the book, The Hindus, accompanying the DAG exhibition, People of Bengal: Coloured Etchings by Baltazard Solvyns, that is on display at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai from April 27 to June 29.