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A Journey Through Botanical Art in Colonial India – and Beauty

A Journey Through Botanical Art in Colonial India – and Beauty

botanical art, KS Manilal, Hortus Malabaricus Indicus, Marg magazine, colonial India, top news, headlines, science news, Ars Botanica, Mulk Raj Anand, Ebba Koch, Mughal architecture, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Le Jardin de Lorixa, botany, plant paintings,

For anyone who has studied botany at the post-secondary level, gathering flower and leaf specimens to build a mini-herbarium would be a familiar experience, ranging from fascinating to tedious. The task of identifying the plants, locating them within the complex classification system, pressing them carefully and then documenting the life-cycle through meticulous drawings… It could be a labour of love or, for some, a chore.

I recall spending hours with pencils sharpened to a dangerous point, placing a glass sheet under the paper to ensure the impression of the fine lines did not carry through to the next page. It was accompanied by the thrill of being able to look at plants with the beginnings of an intimate knowledge of their inner lives, along with the aesthetic satisfaction of visually depicting them through this botanical exercise in still life.

But over the years, this understanding, this particular wonder of seeing the natural world and documenting it in a form that others can recognise it, gradually faded into the background along with other interesting but not particularly instrumental bits of knowledge gathered along the academic pathway. And then came along something that, with the delicate “weight of a petal”, blew the dust off those memories and nudged me to see again, in ways that I had forgotten. Because the creation of herbaria and the documentation of botanical specimens has a history whose threads intersect with (among other things) artistic imagination, imperialism, migration of people and plants, technologies of preservation and representation.

Celestina Lepcha painting floral motifs on a vase. Credit: HINHA
Celestina Lepcha painting floral motifs on a vase. Credit: HINHA

The magazine Marg, in its December 2018-March 2019 issue, has brought together a selection of essays under the title ‘Ars Botanica’. Associate editor Latika Gupta describes it as an exploration of “the multilayered histories of botanical arts”, focusing on collections and archives from roughly the mid 16th to the late 19th centuries and which have special relevance to the Indian subcontinent. Edited by independent scholar and curator Sita Reddy, the issue represents – as she notes in her introductory essay – an “attempt to reconfigure the botanical art archive”. The botanical art, she continues, is “a genre poised between the worlds of art and science, has genealogical roots that run both ways – toward beauty as well as utility…”

Also read: What a Glass Menagerie in Harvard Tells Us About the Art of Science

That beauty can be captured and rendered in multiple ways, and that utility is discerned and given value in multiple ways, are perhaps the guiding elements in such genealogies.

Since being founded in 1946 by Mulk Raj Anand, Marg has been training a discerning eye on art and culture defined in the broadest sense, pulling together contributions from scholars, practitioners, critics and observers from fields as varied as cinema, ceramics, textiles and traditional games. This issue therefore comes as no surprise in and of itself, but each of the 17 short essays draws new insights from a relatively unexplored artistic archive. The essays collectively explore botanical art produced in colonial India, first by the Dutch and then the French and British, with the actual drawings often composed by mostly anonymous Indian draughtsmen.

Gmelina asiatica, painted by Rungiah, c. 1827. Credit: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
Gmelina asiatica, painted by Rungiah, c. 1827. Credit: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

The essays are built around the common theme of absences: what was not seen, or not recorded, by the colonial eye as it gathered – in a very literal sense – the richness of Indian flora. As Reddy writes, the volume “addresses some of [the] gaps in the Indian botanical art archive – invisible artists, indigenous collectors, circulation of diverse art styles…”

To do this, she draws on anthropologist Ann Stoler, “who suggests that plants, pictures of plants, as part of a colonial order of things, must be read along the archival grain, through gaps, uncertainties and rifts of archival production.”

The collection begins aptly with the kind of floral representation we are likely to be familiar with: the figurative gardens of Mughal architecture, notably on the walls of the Taj Mahal. In her essay ‘Flowers in Mughal Architecture’, art historian Ebba Koch provides a new way to look at these images: as deliberate representations of not-so-otherworldly gardens: “The flower and plant decoration of the Taj Mahal was meant to invest the building with a permanent paradisiacal quality”.

Among the most important of these absences is the identity of the hand that rendered these plants on the page. Henry Noltie attempts in his essay to make visible the contributions of the many unknown artists of 19th century botanical art. Commissioned by the surgeon-naturalists of the British East India Company, these draughtsmen, often from marginalised communities, created some of the most richly detailed images in the archives, a form that came to be known as the “Company School” – a term Noltie takes issue with as being too narrow a description of the eclectic influences that these works embody.

Other essays look at specific herbals[footnote]As discrete collections of botanical art were called[/footnote], which – when read through the prism of absence – reveal interesting possibilities and attendant stories about those who commissioned the art as well as those who created it. Kapil Raj, in his examination of ‘Le Jardin de Lorixa’, a collection of plant paintings from eastern India[footnote]Now Bengal and Odisha[/footnote] teases out the ways in which textile painters translated their skill to the paper-based form that colonial naturalists demanded.

In a second essay, Reddy returns to her “passion project”, the Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, that monumental documentation of the flora of the Malabar coast compiled by Dutch naturalist Hendrik Van Reede. But here, she considers other gaps, those that lie in the lost stories of “the making, printing and visual translation from field to page to plate – which traces a remarkable story of colonial encounters and global exchange.”

Also read: A Kerala Botanist’s Affair With an Unlikely 17th Century Book

Ricinus communis (“Mootoocotteh”) from the “Tanjour Grains” album. Credit: Library and Archives, Natural History Museum, London
Ricinus communis (“Mootoocotteh”) from the “Tanjour Grains” album. Credit: Library and Archives, Natural History Museum, London

“Museums are spaces where dislocated objects are invested with narrative agency.” Thus begins Santhosh Kr Sakhinala’s essay on the Botanical Gallery in the Indian Museum, which he argues focuses on the “utilitarian and economic approaches” to nature by the colonial powers. Ironically, it is this same “narrative agency” that allows us – and the writers in this volume – to read the botanical archive in different ways, whether it is the Lalbagh botanical drawings by Suresh Jayaram, ‘Sacred Hindu Plants’ at the Kew Gardens by Michelle Payne or the palms at the Blatter Herbarium  by Lina Vincent.

It is this very narrative power of the archive that is employed by Meghan Lambert as she reads “tensions into the visual representations” of the ‘Plants of the Coast of Coromandel’. One gets the sense, reading through the volume, of participating in an exploration, magnifying glass and critical eye trained on a map, except here the map is a piece of botanical art, with clues hidden in the lines and colours and textures of the drawing, in the spidery writing that disappears into the folds and falls off the margins. You walk along with Payne as she peers at one, then another, of Marrianne North’s “unorthodox” paintings, and with Cam Sharp Jones as she examines Joseph Dalton Hooker’s watercolours.

You really don’t have to be a naturalist, or an artist, to enjoy the journey. And there are footnotes if you want to wander on your own.

While photography has to some extent displaced painting and drawing as a means of documenting plant life, botanical art continues to have a life in today’s world, taking on perhaps a greater aesthetic rather than scientific meaning.

Apart from the 17 essays that explore the colonial botanical archive, the Marg volume introduces us to the work of seven contemporary botanical artists and some botanical art schools of the 21st century. Even as we marvel at the ways in which the former group meld nature into their interpretations, we can take hope from the young artists in the Himalayan studios of Katmandu and Kalimpong whose meditations on nature build appreciation as well as connection.

Frontispiece from L’Empereur's, Ellemans botanique des plante du Jardin de Lorixa, Archives of the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France
Frontispiece from L’Empereur’s, Ellemans botanique des plante du Jardin de Lorixa, Archives of the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France

This issue of Marg uncovers a fascinating and complex slice of history, one that we are unlikely to ever encounter in the tedium of a conventional education. Certain characters recur with some frequency through different accounts: the surgeon-naturalists and the collectors of the East India Company, the herbals themselves as actors, until we are lulled into thinking we know something about all of this, we have walked in these gardens and known these plants, we have looked over the shoulders of these artists and that we can recognise their lines.

But as you turn the last page of this richly illustrated volume, you realise that you are only just beginning to understand the true weight of a petal.

Usha Raman teaches writing and digital media culture at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus, a magazine for school teachers.

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