The Weight of a Petal: In its latest edition, Marg magazine chronicles India’s botanical art
Once photography came in in the late 1800s, botanical artforms became less important. But their importance historically, archivally, is to remind us that these were scientific projects of documentation; that at the heyday of the imperial project, it was this art that pushed science forward as new species were being identified from the colonies, says Sita Reddy, who edited this issue of Marg magazine.
Marg magazine's latest issue — The Weight of a Petal: Ars Botanica — is a glorious chronicle of India’s botanical art, its style and influence on contemporary times.
Once photography came in in the late 1800s, botanical artforms became less important.
But their importance historically, archivally, is to remind us that these were scientific projects of documentation; that at the heyday of the imperial project, it was this art that pushed science forward as new species were being identified from the colonies, says Sita Reddy, who edited this issue of Marg magazine.
Ever since its inception in 1946, with the celebrated Mulk Raj Anand as its founding editor, Marg magazine has been among India’s finest chroniclers of arts and culture. For the first time in its illustrious history, the quarterly magazine has focused on India’s botanical art, its style and influence on contemporary times.
The issue — The Weight of a Petal: Ars Botanica — has been edited by Sita Reddy, a historian of science, a museologist and a museum curator. In an interview with Firstpost, Sita took us through the history of botanical art in India and her experience curating a seminal piece on India’s rich legacy.
This is Marg’s first ever issue on botanical art — in over 70 years. How did it come about?
My approach to botanical art has always been archival, trying to trace a visual genealogy, a deep history, through archives dispersed around the world. With Marg, things really began in 2014 when I got a small IFA ‘seed’ grant to document Indian botanical art archives in Kolkata, Ooty, Kochi. Based on that work, the Marg co-editors Jyotindra Jain and Naman Ahuja asked me, around two years ago, to consider doing a special issue.
For various reasons, it didn’t work out at the time, which in retrospect was a good thing because in the interim, I was able to visit botanical archives abroad (Kew, Edinburgh, Smithsonian) and meet scholars like Henry Noltie. Then out of the blue, in December 2017 when I was spending a semester at Wellcome in London, I got an email asking if I would like to revive the idea. Luckily for me, Latika Gupta, the associate editor, was also in London at the time. We met immediately, began to plot and plan and came up with my wish list. It was a matter of six months from start to finish and we worked very hard to meet the deadline.
You say that “As the world’s first globalisers, plants travel constantly and rarely sit still”. Could you explain the thought behind that?
Plants do travel constantly! Indeed, the very word diaspora has a botanical etymology (dia/across+spora/scatter) And angiosperms — or seed-borne flowering plants — travel the furthest distances, carried as they are by the wind and birds and animals. I’m not the first to note this, of course. We draw our title — The Weight of a Petal — from the very last line of a wonderful 1957 essay by naturalist-poet Loren Eiseley called ‘How Flowers Changed the World’. In it, Eiseley reminds us it was Charles Darwin who called the sudden rise and spread of flowering plants in the Mesozoic era an “abominable mystery”, a “soundless, violent floral explosion” in which flowers, because of their rapid travel, transformed the face of the earth and made it inhabitable for humans. There is a lot of ecological weight resting on that fragile petal!
The theme of the issue is the botanical side of Kampani kalam or the Company School of painting…could you elaborate?
Company School or Kampani kalam is a broad term applied to hybrid, Indo-European 18th and 19th century painting traditions developed by Indian artists under patronage of the East India Companies. Early definitions mentioned the blend of miniature painting techniques with a more European treatment of perspective, volume, recession, and a change in medium from gouache to watercolor on European paper. Company botanicals were a small sub-genre of Kampani style where the commissioners were Company surgeon-botanists and art (Ars) served science (Botanica), i.e. the goal was to scientifically document and record the subcontinent’s flora, its natural history.
In the Marg issue, Company School serves as a lens through which to enter the botanical art genre (a ‘way of seeing’ in Berger’s memorable phrase), as well as a chance to expand, invert and subvert the category itself, which has been roundly criticised in recent years. Not only because of its name — why should an entire body of work be known by its colonial or Company commissioners, goes one critique. But also what it leaves out, erases and forgets: the names of the extraordinary Indian artists who were its true creators. So, that — what the Kampani kalam botanical archive forgets — became the core focus of the issue and an axis to orient future research.
In the issue, the essay ‘Flowers in Mughal Architecture’ showcases how important flora and fauna were to the Mughal period and its art. Even the pietra dura flowers, it says, came in, because of the whole Mughal idea of a jannat which boasted gardens…
Well, I should first point out that flowers in Mughal art are somewhat different from those in Company School/Kampani kalam. The Mughals excelled at floral motifs, by which I mean schematic depictions of composite flower types that were less naturalistic than Kampani style flowers, typically drawn from individual live specimens in the field. That said, the pietra dura flowers in late Shah Jahan period were indeed tied to Mughal ideas of the jannat, paradise, which featured gardens. Deccan painting schools had a similar obsession with flowers in gardens organised around the chaharbagh, the quadri-partite design of the Isfahan-style paradisiacal garden. Ebba Koch’s wonderful article in the Marg issue traces how these flowers in gardens were different for each of the Mughal rulers. From Babur’s lyrical words (without images) in Baburnama that praised his gardens of memory to Mansur’s astonishingly accurate depiction of lilies and irises under Jahangir, and then late Shah Jahan period flower motifs frozen in marble in architectural gems like the Taj Mahal.
In the essay ‘Moochies, Gudigars and Other Chitrakars’, Henry Noltie speaks about the unnamed artists from the 18th and 19th centuries whose visual documentation still survives…who were these artists who drew these trees/plants?
Yes, ‘Moochies…’ is a little gem of an article; a fine summary culled from Henry Noltie’s equally fine earlier monographs on three Company botanist-surgeons, Alexander Gibson, Robert Wight, and Hugh Cleghorn. More importantly, it sets a gold standard for how to reinsert names of formerly anonymous botanical artists. Henry is the only scholar/curator in this field whose entire research life has been focused on reconstructing dispersed archives of art, herbaria and manuscript information, which were catalogued taxonomically and therefore hidden to everyone but the botanists who continued to use them to identify species. A massive decolonisation project, if there ever was one.
Govindoo and Rungiah, Haludar, the anonymous ‘Maratha’ artist, Murugesan Mudaliar from the Madras school of art, are just some of the artists Noltie has been able to identify through painstaking, diligent research that reconstructs — sometimes page by page, image by image — dispersed archives of art, herbaria and manuscripts and pieces back this history. Among his more important findings are that in South India — unlike North India where earlier studies had assumed artists’ training in Mughal and Rajput miniature traditions — there was a wide diversity of botanical art styles including artists from the Tanjore moochy and jingar castes, or the so-called contemporary vernacular and “lesser art forms”, such as kalamkari textiles, tholabommalata (leather puppetry), cheriyal (Telangaa scroll painting) or woodcarving by gudigars. So yes, these artists were trained, but in different genres from the classic Western botanical art schools — which is what gives these exquisite artworks their own unique, idiosyncratic character — in composition, in pattern, in their opaque layering of paint on gouache, and so on.
The British have been integral to the mapping of India’s botanical history. What do you think is their contribution and what was the reason behind their extensive documentation?
Well, the British — if you mean Company scholars, botanists, geologists, scientists, medics, geographers — were very important to mapping the country’s botanical wealth empirically, documenting it with an attention to detail that was key to their Enlightenment agenda of measuring, surveying, compiling knowledge of the natural world. But let’s not forget the point of this Marg issue, which is to refocus attention from the British commissioners of this art to the Indian artists who were the actual creators of Kampani style paintings but were unsung, unseen, unacknowledged even by name. The volume is dedicated to them. So if the British are seen as integral to the mapping of India’s botanical history, then the real heroes and footsoldiers were their (often) anonymous native artists.
The book refers to important collections, such as the Buchnan-Hamilton Drawings at the Linnean Society of London and Indian Botanical Art at Kew Gardens...
You’ve mentioned two collections from the British Company era. The point about archival botanical art from the 18th and 19th centuries is that many of these paintings, done under the aegis of Company botanists, are now housed in collections abroad precisely because they were first made in the pursuit of colonial science and taxonomy when new tropical species were being discovered in the Indian colony, and sent back to metropoles. What drove these artworks, in other words, was not decoration but documentation. The fact that they have such aesthetic merit underscores the brilliance of their Indian artist-creators. In the British case, the Linnean Society does house the Buchanan-Hamilton drawings (and Henry Noltie traces the story of how it got there). But a large bulk of Company art is at Kew Gardens and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, two collections which also hold herbaria specimens and manuscript archives.
How has botanical art changed over the years? What are the seminal changes that one can see in the last three centuries?
This is such a broad question! I think the whole scope of the Marg issue traces these moments in botanical art, through different genre and media: From early woodcuts in the translated versions of the 16th century Portugese Coloquios le simples et des drogas to the stunning watercolours in the 17th century French East India Company unpublished manuscript Jardin Lorixa (Garden of Orissa) – one of the earliest to use Indian artists; from the Dutch botanical masterpiece Hortus Indicus Malabaricus (Garden of Malabar) that documents the flora of Malabar to the 18th and 19th century British Kampani kalam paintings that moved from gouache medium to watercolor and sepia wash over the course of the two centuries, to the whole range of contemporary artists we see today. We feature seven of these amazing artists who are continuing this ‘tradition’: Sunoj D, Rohini Devasher, Meena Subramaniam, Damodar lal Gurjar, Mahaveer Swamy, Waswo X Waswo and RVijay.
Last but not least, in the pullout section right up front, we feature 10 pages on artworks from the only two botanical art schools in the subcontinent — one in Kathmandu founded by Neera Joshi Pradhan and the other in Kalimpong founded by Hemlata Pradhan. These two institutions are changing the discourse and practice of botanical art pedagogy by training a whole new generation of artists from all backgrounds, not necessarily the caste-based lineages that were the rule in Company times. So change is afoot.
India has an old history with flora and fauna. Our great epics speak about them (including Ramayana where Ram spends his exile in the forest) too but do you think we have been lax in caring for it? And that we take it for granted?
Yes, we definitely take our flora and fauna for granted. I’d go further and say we abuse our natural history, destroy our environment and precious biodiversity. Just look at what’s happening with our reliance on fossil fuels and how it is contributing to global warming, the melting of our polar icecaps, the destruction of endangered species every day.
As to forests in epics, rather than conjecture, I would prefer to historicise forest conservation in the Indian context. For one thing, contrary to popular belief, it was a Company botanist — Hugh Cleghorn — who served as the Forest Conservator of (colonial) India who called out deforestation of the Western Ghats and first laid the groundwork for the environmental conservation movement in India. Fast forward to recent events — with the Supreme Court stay order on evicting tribal forest dwellers in the name of conservation. And it becomes clear that forest conservation may continue to be one of India’s most deeply problematic and hotly contested areas of policy and practice.
What is the importance of botanical art in 2019?
Once photography came in in the late 1800s, these botanical artforms became less important. But their importance historically, archivally, is to remind us that these were scientific projects of documentation; that at the heyday of the imperial project, it was this art that pushed science forward as new species were being identified from the colonies. Today, some of the gorgeous folio editions — for example, Hortus Malabaricus or Plants of the Coast of Coromandel — are still amazingly accurate not only with plant identification but in helping us map environmental loss in say the Western Ghats, which is rapidly losing biodiversity on a daily basis. Here these beautiful artworks serve as grim reminders of our rapidly diminishing botanical heritage, suggesting that if we don’t begin to do something to preserve our planet’s forest cover, our incredible plant diversity, we are doomed.
The images make the book (or so it would appear). How old are the images, how did you choose/trace them out?
The images do make the book! In terms of age, I wanted a balance between the achingly beautiful archival images and the equally beautiful contemporary examples of botanical art. So when you ask how old the images are, I’d point to the oldest — reproductions (in the book) of the 16th century Spanish or Latin translations of Coloquios de simples et drogas. Or the three essays on 17th century manuscripts commissioned by the French, British and Dutch East India Companies – Jardin Lorixa, the Gurney manuscript, and Hortus Indicus Malabaricus. At the other end of the scale, I don’t know what would qualify as the youngest image but I would like to leave the last hurrah for the youngest artist we feature: Celestina Lepcha, Hemlata Pradhan’s nine-year-old student from Kalimpong. I hope Celestina and her generation are able to not only revive this wonderful genre of botanical art but take it to unprecedented new heights.
To buy a copy of The Weight of a Petal: Ars Botanica, click here.
— These images were first published in The Weight of a Petal: Ars Botanica, edited by Sita Reddy, Mumbai: Marg, Vol. 70, No. 2, December 2018–March 2019.
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