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Recovering India's botanical treasures from colonial history

Martyn Rix's new book offers a rich overview of botanical paintings from India, and the forgotten artists who created these breathtaking artworks

Detail from bitter melon, unknown artist (1678-93). (All images courtesy: Roli Books)

In Kalidasa’s iconic play, as Shakuntala leaves her abode in the forests for her husband’s home, the trees, who have been her companions all her life, mourn her departure. The cuckoo calls out plaintively from the foliage and creepers drop their yellow buds, as though shedding tears. Elsewhere, too, nature is a living, breathing entity in Kalidasa’s oeuvre—long before scientists needed to prove that plants have feelings and sensations like us.

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The subcontinent’s fascination with nature, which has endured for centuries, scaled new heights during the colonial era as British and European officials landed on Indian soil, their eyes dazzled by the wealth of exotic flora and fauna—what we now call biodiversity. However, unlike precious metals and textiles, it wasn’t easy to plunder these treasures and transport them back home. So other means of “ownership” had to be devised.

Page from Gulshan album, signed by Mansur, ‘Jahangir Shahi’, c. 1615.
Page from Gulshan album, signed by Mansur, ‘Jahangir Shahi’, c. 1615.

The colonisers started commissioning local artists to paint the vegetation around them. The drawings had to be made with utmost fidelity in the absence of actual photographic technology, capturing the nuances with precision and accuracy. Commissioned by civilians, natural scientists and physicians alike, this was as much decorative as educational art.

In Indian Botanical Art: An Illustrated History, Martyn Rix provides an overview of the imperial obsession with the subcontinent’s botanical resources via the lens of art. Drawing on the vast collections at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the UK, the beautifully produced book is arranged by the collections commissioned by British East India Company officials as well as others.

Indian Botanical Art—An Illustrated History: By Martyn Rix, Roli Books, 224 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>1,495.
Indian Botanical Art—An Illustrated History: By Martyn Rix, Roli Books, 224 pages, 1,495.

Rix prefaces his survey with an introduction to the Mughal miniatures, dating back to emperor Jahangir’s time, which evinced an interested in flora and fauna. The ornate embellishment of those compositions, with elaborate floral borders, is in stark contrast to the keen realism of the later painters, who were trained to look closely at specimens rather than give free reign to their imagination.

Pride of India, probably by Rungiah, 1825-28
Pride of India, probably by Rungiah, 1825-28

The thrust of Rix’s book, as scholar Sita Reddy says in her foreword, is to revisit the racist legacy of the empire. “Imperial botanical collections were built on the backs of spice trade routes, voyages of plant ‘discovery’, and plantation cultures,” she writes, “all systems of exploitation and extraction that plundered the world’s natural resources for commercial profit and royal privilege.” One way in which Rix tries to correct the balance is by retrieving the identities of the “Company artists” from oblivion and anonymity.

Dhak tree or Palash, possibly by Sheikh Zain al-Din, c. 1800
Dhak tree or Palash, possibly by Sheikh Zain al-Din, c. 1800

Historian William Dalrymple undertook a similar exercise in Forgotten Masters (2019), though the scant information left behind by the owners of the paintings makes reliable identification a herculean task. Apart from Lady Impey (1749-1818), who kept careful records of the artists she commissioned (Ram Das, Bhawani Das and Sheikh Zain al-Din) to paint the natural history species she collected in her garden near Calcutta (now Kolkata), most others, mostly men, did not bother.

Wild ginger by a Calcutta artist.
Wild ginger by a Calcutta artist.

This is especially curious because visual transcription of botanical species was of paramount importance at the time—success in medicine hinged on the doctor’s skill as a botanist, since all prescriptions depended on knowledge of medicinal plants. Yet, as Rix points out, many of the artists worked under exacting circumstances, having to get by with natural dyes and pigments to create the colours needed for their work.

Rhododendron, hand-coloured lithograph by W.H. Fitch, based on field sketch by Joseph Hooker
Rhododendron, hand-coloured lithograph by W.H. Fitch, based on field sketch by Joseph Hooker

If Rix catalogues the achievements of pioneering botanists (such as William Roxburgh, Robert Wright and Claude Martin), he also pairs them with the artists (like Haludar, Govindoo, Rungiah) who were in their employment. This is not only a way of returning ownership of the art to the creators, but also acknowledging their crucial role in scientific documentation and research. He ends with some of the stars of botanical painting in modern-day India (like Damodar Lal Gurjar, Arundhati Vartak and Hemlata Pradhan) and the continuities and departures in their styles from their forgotten ancestors. Botanical painting is not only a living tradition still— but also a testimony to the thoughtless destruction of beautiful nature.

Cannonball Tree by Arundhati Vartak.
Cannonball Tree by Arundhati Vartak.

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