Recently, while browsing the shelves of Strand Book Store, one title caught my attention: A Portrait of the Hindus: Balthazar Solvyns & the European Image of India 1760-1824 by Robert L Hardgrave. Published by the Oxford University Press, the 568 page book measures 9×12, with 287 halftone and 78 color illustrations. In the following days I will be posting some images from the book along with excerpts from the commentary.
From the book’s front flap:
The Flemish artist Francois Balthazar Solvyns, who lived in Calcutta from 1791 to 1803, is little known, but his collection of etchings of the Hindus provide a rich and compelling portrait of India two hundred years ago. These remarkable prints, depicting the people of Bengal in their occupations, festivals, and daily life, and the accompanying descriptive text, are only available in rare book collections and have rarely been referred to by scholars of Indian culture and history. In Part I of this lavishly illustrated volume, Robert Hardgrave introduces Solvyn’s life and work. Part II reproduces Solvyn’s etchings and descriptions, with Hardgrave’s detailed commentary.
As a practicing Chaitanya Vaishnava and a frequent visitor to West Bengal, I found the entire presentation compelling, particularly the etchings and commentary directly related to Vaishnava culture. Besides it’s artistic value, for me the book serves as a type of encyclopedia of Bengali culture, augmenting my knowledge of many terms I’ve come across in sacred Bengali texts such as Chaitanya Charitamrita and Chaitanya Bhagavata. And where Solvyns’s descriptions at times express a type of condescension common in European ethnography of India, or a lack of knowledge or understanding, Hardgrave’s commentary recurrently serves to clarify.
For information of the on the Solvyns Project click here.
To view Solvyns’ etchings online click here.
A Portrait of the Hindus can be purchased online from the Oxford University Press.