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The Indian artists of Roxburgh’s herbarium

Nearly 2,595 paintings of Indian plants were created for the Central National Herbarium in Kolkata in 1795. Unfortunately, not much is known about the Indian artists responsible for these drawings

‘Manilkara kauki’: Unknown Indian artist, painted for William Roxburgh, Kolkata, c. 1805
‘Manilkara kauki’: Unknown Indian artist, painted for William Roxburgh, Kolkata, c. 1805 (Photo courtesy: Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh)

On a bracing Kolkata morning amidst the winter dahlias, William Dalrymple made his silks-and-jholas audience cringe and then preen. First, he rubbed their noses in the shame of Bengal’s most illustrious families having “collaborated" with the rapacious East India Company. Next he made them rub their eyes in awe as he presented “the unknown treasure trove in your midst": slide upon slide of jewel-like nature art in the collection of the Central National Herbarium (CNH), hidden in the 273-acre Botanical Gardens on the city’s fringe. To adapt Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard: Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its beauty in an archive’s musty air.

Picnics at “Botanics" were part of my “Cal" childhood, its Grand Banyan, more forest than tree, arguably the first marvel I saw. But this time I was zipping to Shibpur via the second bridge across the turgid Hooghly towards a very different attraction. Ignoring the world’s largest tree—300m in circumference courtesy its nearly 4,000 prop roots and still spreading—I met its wispy, more historic, hoarier neighbour: Cyperus procerus Rottb, India’s oldest herbarium specimen. In lyrical handwriting, the caption recorded that it was collected “between Fort St George (Madras) and Tirupati by Dr Samuel Brown, a British surgeon, between 15th and 20th of June 1696". That’s three years older than the oldest denizen of the Kew herbarium in London.

Basic lesson: A herbarium is not some verdant garden; it’s an atmosphere-controlled vault holding a vast botanical database. The knowledge locked in its meticulously “evaporated plants" helps us better understand our ecosystem, for health or food security.

The CNH’s head of office, V. P. Prasad, is manifestly proud of his precious hoard, as is each of his colleagues—and their boss, A.A. Mao, director, Botanical Survey of India. It is among the largest and most highly regarded in the world.It holds two million specimens, including 20,722 “Types", the originals which were first given the scientific name (in present times, 11 new genera and about 235 new species have “been described" from the CNH). The CNH’s legacy includes the original edition of William Roxburgh’s Flora Indica, edited by William Carey (who helped set up the Serampore Mission Press, from where the first Bengali newspaper was published from 1818); a cabinet filled with 32 volumes of the original correspondence of Nathaniel Wallich, the garden’s Danish superintendent from 1794-1842), complete with a huge bound Index; his famed Catalogue of 20,897 specimens in his now-sepia, copper-plate handwriting; plus a library of 55,000 books and bound journals.

And, of course, there’s Dalrymple’s “unknown treasure trove": the eye-popping cornucopia of 2,595 detailed paintings of Indian plants done by Indian artists for Roxburgh, the Scottish marine surgeon who in 1795 set up what became the CNH in 1972. He was the first salaried superintendent of the Calcutta Royal Botanic Garden (1793-1813) appointed after the death of its founder, Colonel Robert Kyd. The garden was set up in 1786 as a laboratory to “seed" these strains of useful plants so that they could take root wherever the East India Company was doing likewise.

‘Campis Grandiflora’
‘Campis Grandiflora’ (Photo courtesy: V P Prasad)

So I emailed a Roxburgh devotee, Henry Noltie of Edinburgh’s Royal Botanical Gardens. He promptly replied: “Unfortunately almost nothing is known of Roxburgh’s artists, as he recorded nothing about them, not even their names, despite the fact that they made more than 2,500 drawings for him over three decades. He started to commission them when he worked on the Coromandel Coast in the 1780s, and his two artists there may well have started out as chintz painters. He took at least one of them with him to Calcutta. Here he built up a larger team, some of whom are likely to have been of the Patna school. Some British commissioners imported British watercolours but (from their rather limited palette) I suspect that Roxburgh’s artists may well have made their own in the traditional way from plants and minerals."

A calendar on Prasad’s wall notes that “Indian yellow was made from the urine of cows fed primarily on mango leaves…" A placard says Roxburgh paid 3 per painting to the artists employed by the Garden.

Noltie continued: “It is for good reason that Roxburgh is known as the ‘Father of Indian Botany’. He started his great work of documenting the Indian flora while in Andhra Pradesh, and continued to do so in Calcutta. However his great work, the Flora Indica, was only brought out (five years after his death) in an incomplete edition in 1820 and 1824, and in a complete 3-volume edition in 1832. He was also interested in wider issues, such as making detailed records of climate and the uses of plants (medicinal, food and commercial). He was also the first to describe scientifically the Ganges river dolphin."

Roxburgh’s private life happened to be as colourful as the paintings he commissioned. He fathered 12 children with three wives. One of his sons later worked as an assistant at the same Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta. Another son, not mothered by any of Roxburgh’s wives, also collected plants in Malaysia.

Unfortunately, I could not gaze on any of the CNH’s 3,400 later examples of “Company Art", now called “Patna Kalam" in belated recognition of their creators.

Says Dalrymple, who has authored a second 2019 book, the luxe Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting For The East India Company: “These paintings are an extraordinary collection of little-seen masterpieces. Natural history art was a big thing with the Mughal emperors and they seriously patronized geniuses such as Mansur in emperor Jahangir’s court. The British in India harnessed this amazing talent for their own ends when botany became all the rage in Europe.

‘Nymphaea rubra’.
‘Nymphaea rubra’. (Photo courtesy: Central National Herbarium)

So, considering this multifaceted bequest, it was sad, and shaming, to see the brooding ruins that are Roxburgh’s house and library in the botanical garden which he planted into history. As I stepped gingerly beyond its crumbling portico, a watchman hurriedly gathered the clothes he had hung up beneath the elegant wooden staircase winding up to the second floor. Even in decay, the mansion is a superb example of colonial 18th century architecture, as is the adjacent original herbarium-cum-library. It stands atop cleverly arched foundations to allow the Hooghly’s high tide to flow through.

Hope could still come from afar. The Asia Scotland Trust, along with the Centre of World Environmental History (CWEH) at Sussex University, offered to restore the house and library and repurpose them into an interdisciplinary environmental history research/information centre. A report was drafted and British conservation architect James Simpson has measured drawings of the house and the herbarium. There the matter stands. Corona is only the latest of delays. But the good news is that Roxburgh’s legacy, now in the modern CNH building, is safe. Prasad reassures me on the phone that the whole archive had been fumigated just a fortnight before lockdown halted all maintenance.

Bachi Karkaria is a senior journalist, columnist and author.

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