Dressing up, Raj style

Dressing up, Raj style
'Costumes of Hindostan' [Costumes de L’indostan] by Balthazar Solvyns, a reprint edition of 60 colour printed engraved plates with descriptions in English and French taken in the years 1798-1799, is on show at the India International Centre Annexe on Lodhi Road.

These etchings are a part of Solvyns’ achingly ambitious, life-consuming project on the natives of the Indian subcontinent, chronicling the diverse nature of their customs and costumes, religion and race.

Solvyns sailed to India in 1790, and sometime in 1793, he began work on these engravings. It was one of the most challenging publishing ventures yet to have happened in the country. He wandered the length and breadth of India with his sketchbook, recording the natives in their occupational pursuits, festivals and the rich variety of their cultural lives.

He drew their musical instruments, boats and carts, dresses and decadence, palanquins
and pipes. He drew them as prostitutes, as religious bigots, as chowkidars, as women of repute, as priests and sufis. He even added a descriptive observation to each engraving, which appear as separate subtexts to the works.

It is interesting to understand the underlying sociopolitical commentary of these works. What Solvyns essentially does is purvey a descriptive illustration of the subcontinent in a manner very few Europeans observed then. His judgements are tempered with pity, coloured by racial superiority, or flawed by misgivings.

This observation can be further elucidated with the gradual unfurling of the subtext appended to these engravings. For example, Solvyns champions the exalted status of the European widows in comparison to their native counterparts. He writes,‘the odious interdictions of widowhood are unknown to the fair daughters of Europe.’

He speaks of their musical instruments — traditional, native devices that according to Solvyns, ‘produced a inferior and harsh music’.

He chronicled the Surmungla, the Saringee, the D’hauk [dhak], the D’holuc [dholak], the Bansee, the Jego Jhompo, the Puwkwauz, the Tubla, and the Kaura. Speaking of which, it is thoroughly interesting to read what he appends to the text on the Bansee [flute].

Solvyns writes, ‘a pipe like instrument used in bigotry, where faqirs and magicians drive iron rods through their tongues and breasts. As for all Hindoo music, the fault lies in the want of harmony. Europeans call it harsh.’

Solyns moves from the musical instruments to chronicling the natives in their occupational pursuits. He shows a hijra [hermaphrodite], a polye [native fisherwoman], nautch girls, hircarrah [local postmen], taylor [tailor], Kheerch bardar [accountant], jelee [fisherman].

The exhibition offers an eclectic portrayal of India, as the Europeans saw or understood it.
Sanjana Sarkar

Sanjana Sarkar

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