There is a resurgence of interest in botanical illustration all over the world and India is no exception. This development only modified and expanded a long tradition that dates back to the Mughal era, which flourished in the early 17th century.
In the Mughal era, paintings of flowers and plants, executed in the purest style of miniatures, decorated with delightful borders, were painted for decorative rather than scientific purposes: thus the famous “red tulip” painted by Mansur, a favorite artist of the emperor Jahangir, about 1620. The daffodils and other flowers of North-East India were already great botanicals. had accuracy.
“The Red Tulip”, Ustad Mansur, 17th century, Wikipedia CC BY-SA
But in the 16th and 19th centuries there was a real explosion of talent in Indian botanical illustration, as artists mostly worked for doctors or scientists.British East India Company (EIC).
Enthusiastic natural history buffs collect and catalog plants for scientific, religious, or ornamental purposes.
In 1600, the Royal Charter was adoptedBritish East India Companythe starting point of growing commercial power is always the search for new products that can be sold in Europe and Asia: indigo, tea, sugar cane and all kinds of spices.
This powerful company also encouraged exchanges by importing medicinal plants used in Ayurvedic medicine: thus, doctors and surgeons collaborated full-time with artists.
In the 18th century, indigo and lacquer (from insects) were widely exported. New plants are studied. Botanic gardens flourish: tamarind, cucumber, ginger, cardamom, sugarcane, pepper, become increasingly successful, thereby contributing to a great variety of styles in botanical illustration.
black pepper, Piper nigrumphoto: Liliane Roubaudi, PictoFlora CC BY-SA
Until the 20th century, illustrated books remained an extremely expensive rarity and required the artist to produce original drawings, engravers, copperplates, colorists… These works are still treasured in private collections in India or Great Britain. Many survive in libraries at Kew or the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. A magnificent collection is also in the botanical garden of Calcutta Coromandel Coast Plants1795 – 1819, Dr. by William Roxburgh, Botanical description of the Himalayas1833-1840 by John Forbes Royle, Signs of Plantarum Indiae Orientalis1838 – 1853, from Rungiah and his disciple Govindoo, A Selection of Neilgherry Plants, drawn and painted from Nature1846-1851, contains 204 hand-drawn and colored illustrations by Robert Wight (1796-1872).
Although botanical illustration in India experienced a sort of decline in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (lack of funding, reduced commissions, botanists moving to other continents, new forms of observation), today we see a renewed decline. interest in this art that lies at the intersection of scientific observation and the miniature tradition. While many miniaturists have turned to the tourist market, others have contributed to the history of botanical illustration through the excellence of their work.
Great talents like Thakur Ganga Singh, Jaipur-based artists from the Sharma family famous for their bonsai paintings, Damoda Lal Gurjar, Arundati Vartak, Jaggu Prasad, Nirup Rao… all have a style of great technical virtuosity and one thing in common. realistic. The fame of these artists goes beyond the borders of India: they are followed by American associations and are part of the collections of the prestigious Hunt Institute. This eruption translates a constant concern to respect nature and capture its beauty in a world threatened on all sides.
The journey of Mahaveer Swami, who works in Bikaner, Rajasthan, is one example among many. This 63-year-old miniaturist wants to be a follower of the complex technique of the past: he grinds coral, lapis lazuli, malachite, pearls, thus giving his works a special delicacy and elegance. He paints on traditional paper, camel bone, silk… his work is extremely colorful, some plates are very realistic, others are more reminiscent of the stylized decorative friezes of the Mughal period.
It regularly holds exhibitions in India and abroad. The Hunt Institute has a collection of his works. In 2019, I had the chance to organize a botanical illustration workshop with him in Shillong. This exercise was initiated Botanical Survey of India, a research institute specializing in endangered plants. This seminar was presented by the present Director of Botanical Survey of India, Dr. Ashiho Asosii was planned by Mao. Its purpose is bamboo, orchid, ginger, etc. was to enrich the collections of this institution, taking into account the great commercial and medicinal potential of such plants.
Botanical illustration still has a bright future in India and elsewhere.
Illustrator, Asba member, SBA graduate