A new book, Indian Botanical Art: An Illustrated History, explores the individualism of Indian botanical artists down the ages

From Mughal emperor Jahangir to the distinctive European tradition ushered in by the British, Martyn Rix traces the arc of depicting flora and fauna in art

By Ganesh Saili

Wandering through the thousand-acre Forest Research Institute in Dehradun, I take a break from its immaculate brick-lined corridors to step into a room. Around me are the paintings of flowering branches of beautiful trees of India, faithfully depicting the shape and colour of flowers, leaves and branches. It takes my breath away with its accuracy and freshness, where every single petal comes alive. Some of these include the work of the artist Ganga Singh.

But more on him later.

Almost two centuries after the first botanical paintings made their long journey from colonial India to the Kew Gardens in London, along comes a book that perhaps represents the first return journey of an archive. Seventy years after wresting independence from the British Crown, for the first time, the tradition of Indian botanical artists has been showcased between two covers.

Fortunately, in recent times, artists such as Hemlata Pradhan in Kalimpong, Nirupa Rao in Bengaluru and Jaggu Prasad in Rajasthan have exhibited their work the world over, while gently passing on the baton of botanical painting to the younger generation of artists.

This tradition of flower painting dates back at least as far as 1620, when Emperor Jahangir commissioned a detailed study of the botany which so delighted him on a visit to Kashmir in springtime. The local artists were greatly influenced by European herbals and woodcut illustrations of the time and these led to a certain formality and accuracy in representation alongside the already established naturalistic observation of plants. Down the ages, flower ornament went on to become a central feature of Indian decoration: in architecture, carpets, other textiles and also in Indian miniatures and book design.

What really must have gone through the mind of a 16-year-old still-wet-behind-the-ears Ganga Singh as he walked through the gates of the Chandbagh in 1911, the gravel crunching underfoot? The incredibly talented painter from the tiny village of Kakhola, with a population of 19, became a trainee botanical artist there. For the next 20 years, there was no looking back. Retirement in 1942 saw him join the staff of Maharaja Yadavindra Singh of Patiala, painting the collected flora in over 400 watercolours over the next two decades, until he passed away in 1971.

Elsewhere, others like him who did not come from a family of traditional artists, were usually hired and trained by the British to paint in the Western illustrative “East India Company” tradition, though Singh was so unlike the artists that worked for Scottish botanist and physician William Roxburgh, or those that did the Dapuri Drawings, commissioned by another East India Company official Alexander Gibson. Many early paintings by Singh carry the signatures of late 18th century artists like Sheikh Zain al-Din, Bhawani Das and Ram Das. The trio also created portraits of birds, fish and some of the animals kept in Lady Impey’s Calcutta menagerie around 1780.

Initially, all artists were influenced by the paintings of the gifted 19th-century botanist Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, who visited India around 1850 and met many skilled artists, whose paintings he greatly admired. This made him start his own collection that included his own works as well. All these were sent to his father, who was a curator at the Kew Gardens.

Of course, there were many artists who chose to root their work in the Western tradition of British botanical artists like Hooker, and the Dutch artists that were brought over to draw Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede tot Drakenstein’s Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, instead of following the tradition of Mughal botanical painting started by Jahangir. They were interested in all commercial aspects of plants that grew on the coast of Kerala, and particularly in spices and medicinal plants. They evolved a style which was distinctly their own and are a powerful demonstration of their complete mastery over the medium — you will find in the pages of this well-produced book, images that seem to float off the surface, so exquisitely the ink and paint come together on paper.

It is heartening to note that the work of Indian artists has been recognised for the first time. More often than not, publications overlook giving credit where it is due. Resurrecting the names of these forgotten artists, thus, is a way of giving credit where it is due and a noble way of correcting a profound archival erasure.

This book is a valuable contribution that does a course correction of history’s collective amnesia.

(Ganesh Saili is a writer and photographer based out of Landour)

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