An exhibition and book remembering the extraordinary art of François Balthazar Solvyns, a pioneer in the field of print-making in India.
François Balthazar Solvyns belongs to that club of geniuses who are celebrated long after they are gone. The world woke up to his splendid artwork only a few years ago and hailed it as a seminal work in the field of anthropology. Born in Antwerp, he came to India in March 1791 and made Kolkata his home for the next 12 years, where he remained engaged with the local communities and recreated their lives through his splendid etchings.
The marine painter and travel artist Solvyns also brought out three books, “A collection of Two Hundred and Fifty Coloured Etchings Descriptive of the Manners, Customs, and Dresses of the Hindoos”, “The Costume of Hindostan” and “Les Hindous” which failed to get any notice then. It's a different story today. Solvyns' books and works do the rounds of auctions and his work is seen in the context of socio-cultural studies of that era.
Now, Aryan Books International has come out with the reprint edition of “The Costume of Hindostan” which will be launched alongside the exhibition “The Costume of Hindostan: Exhibition of Eighteenth Century Engravings” at India International Centre scheduled to begin on May 25th. The book comprises 60 engravings/sketches of the locals in their costumes, occupation and cultural life like aheers, bhistis, barbers, astrologers, etc., accompanied by detailed descriptions as given by the artist himself in English and French. The exhibition, which will travel to Bangalore and possibly to Mumbai and Kolkata, draws a few striking works from the lavishly produced book.
“It's a very realistic portrayal, as close as you can get. He observed his surroundings keenly and recreated them remaining loyal to the reality. For instance in palkiwala, Solvyns hasn't missed out on the keys of the bearer which is such a minute detail. At the World Book Fair this year, we did our poster in vinyl sheet bearing the work “Brijbasi” and the visitors got so fascinated by that image,” says Vikas Arya of Arya Books International.
Unlike the Daniels and other European painters based in India at that time who commanded respect and enjoyed popularity in the elite circles, Solvyns struggled to find a place in the European society of the time. “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. He went to France and produced the same book in French and even that didn't do well. 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. The publisher says they have tried to remain as close to the original book as possible. While the original is said to be priced in lakhs, the reprint edition will be available for Rs.3,600.
“Since these books were meant for the European market, introducing the reader to new cultures and practices, people like Solvyns wrote descriptive texts to go along which were quite interesting. He did one plate on a barber and titled it “A Baulber”. ‘Barber is a corruption of baulber for as the native aborigines and Mahommedans never employ a hairdresser, they have not a name for him in their language. The hairdresser of India like the hairdresser of Europe propagate the lie of the day',” says Vikas quoting from the book.
Solvyns was born in Antwerp in 1760, the youngest child of a family of prosperous merchants. In 1778, Solvyns went to Paris to become the student of François-Andrè Vincent (1746-1816), one of the major figures of the Neo-classical movement. On his return to Antwerp, he embarked upon a career as a marine painter. There are records of many marine paintings from the 1780s by Solvyns. However, the only Solvyns painting known to have survived from this period is “The View of a Dutch Port” signed and dated 1787, in Antwerp's National Maritime Museum. Because of the political unrest in the Low Countries in 1789-1790 and without his former patronage, Solvyns, at the age of 30, made the decision to come to India.
In 2004, Mapin and Oxford University Press released “A Portrait Of The Hindus: Balthazar Solvyns & The European Image Of India 1760-1824”, authored by Professor Robert L. Hardgrave.