Book Review

Book Review: Martyn Rix's 'Indian Botanical Art' is a comprehensive illustrated history of the subject

Print edition : May 06, 2022

‘Indian Botanical Art: An illustrated history’ By Martyn Rix (Royal Botanic Gardens Kew-Roli Books, 2021)

Spider flower (Cleome houetteana). Artist unknown, for John Cathcart in Darjeeling, 1850. Photo: By special arrangement

Flame-of-the-forest, dhak tree or palash (Butea monosperma). Artist unknown, possibly Sheikh Zain-al-Din, c. 1800. Photo: By special arrangement

Garden peas (Pisum sativum). Artist unknown, for Claude Martin in Lucknow, c. 1790. Photo: By special arrangement

Wild ginger (Hedychium coocineum). By a Calcutta artist, for John Royle, Saharanpur, c.1828. Photo: By special arrangement

Fungus root (Balanophora fungosa, subsp. indica). Probably by Govindoo for Robert Wight, 1845. Photo: By special arrangement

Bitter melon (Momordica charantia). Unknown Dutch artist for van Rheede tot Drakestein, “Horticus Indicus Malabaricus” (1678-93). Photo: By special arrangement

Peepal tree, bodhi tree or bo tree (ficus religiosa). Artist unknown for Claude Martin in Lucknow, 1790. Photo: By special arrangement

Exquisitely illustrated, this comprehensive book on the tradition of botanical art in India will delight art lovers and enthusiasts of botany and Indian history alike.

ONE of the earliest surviving botanical paintings from India is the portrait of a tulip, painted around 1620 by Mansur Naqqash for the Mughal emperor Jahangir. The painting was signed “Jahangirshahi, the work of the slave of the Presence-Chamber, Mansur Naqqash”.

Mansur Naqqash, who was also an illustrator in the court of Jahangir’s father, Akbar, became famous for his paintings of flowers, plants and animals during Jahangir’s reign. The painting of the tulip—now in the Habibganj collection in the Maulana Azad Library of Aligarh Muslim University—was most probably done during Jahangir’s visit to Kashmir in the spring of 1620. The emperor was struck by the beauty of the flowers he saw there, and Mansur Naqqash is believed to have made more than 100 paintings of them.

More than 400 years after Mansur Naqqash painted the tulip, the history of Indian botanical art has been curated in the form of a beautiful volume by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The book, Indian Botanical Art: An Illustrated History, written by the renowned horticulturalist Martyn Rix, tells the story of botanical paintings in India down the ages with exquisite illustrations while providing fascinating information on the various plants and flowers featured in it.

Mughal patronage

From the time of Babur until the ascension of Aurangzeb, Mughal emperors had a particular fondness for gardens and flowers, which repeatedly found expression in the artwork and paintings of that age. Jahangir’s love for flowers and botanical art was inherited by both his son the emperor Shah Jahan and his eldest grandson, Dara Shikoh. Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, was a noted scholar and a connoisseur of the arts. The book talks of a “most beautiful album” of flowers, now in the British Library, that was created for Dara Shikoh between 1630 and 1633. The prince presented this album to his wife Nadira Banu Begum in 1641.

The beauty of the paintings in it can be gauged by just one of the pages from the album presented in the book. The folio depicts flower studies—marigold, iris, chrysanthemum, pimpernel, rose and a dark purple spur—created by a Muhammad Khan, the only artist who is named in Dara Shikoh’s album. The book features many such rare artwork largely inaccessible to the general public along with information on unheralded artists whose works contributed immensely to the tradition of botanical art in the country.

Mughal patronage of art may have declined following the ascension to the throne in 1659 of Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan’s third son, after a bitter war of succession, but the importance of Indian botanical art did not diminish. In fact, between 1678 and 1693, 12 volumes of the first great illustrated work on Indian plants were published in Holland. The Dutch nobleman and naturalist Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede tot Drakenstein, who was the governor of Dutch Malabar from 1669 to 1676, played a pioneering role in codifying the medicinal plants found in the Malabar coast, resulting in the seminal book Hortus Indicus Malabaricus.

Glimpses of colonial history

In the process of charting the course of the evolution of Indian botanical art up to the present day, Martyn Rix provides very interesting glimpses and angles of India’s colonial history. The period between the late 18th century and the early 19th century witnessed the most productive period of botanical art in India. The employees of the English East India Company, who had landed in Madras and Bengal, hired Indian artists to make paintings for them.

Rix writes: “The Europeans wanted their natural history paintings to approximate to the style of 18th century French and English artists... so the Indian painters had to learn to work on a larger scale, making the plant paintings at least near life-size, and in a more naturalistic style.” Thus a new “hybrid style” in botanical art came into being, and the earliest flower paintings in this “hybrid style” dated back to 1772. One of the earliest known painters of this new style was Bhawani Das, who along with Sheikh Zain-al-Din and Ram Das formed the team of artists employed by Lady Mary Impey to paint for her the natural history specimens she collected during her stay in Bengal. The book also presents the paintings of some of the other accomplished artists of the period, including Manu Lall and Chuni Lall.

In 1775, the year Lady Impey arrived in Calcutta, another celebrated surgeon and botanist, William Roxburgh, arrived in Madras. Roxburgh, known as the ‘father of Indian botany’, had hired numerous artists to paint flowers and plants for him. One of them, simply known as the ‘chief artist’, even accompanied Roxburgh when he shifted his base to Calcutta (now Kolkata). The names of many of these artists may never be known, but this book allows their works to be admired by the world.

Although the artists who worked for Roxburgh remain unknown, the ones who painted for his successor, Nathaniel Wallich, were acknowledged when their drawings were published in London. The book contains vivid illustrations by artists such as Vishnupersaud, Gorachand and Ramchand. It takes into account the contributions of naturalists such as Lady Impey, Roxburgh, Benjamin Heyne, Adam Freer, Nathaniel Wallich, John Forbes Royle, Hugh Falconer, John Ferguson Cathcart and Joseph Hooker, and also lists the Indian painters who collaborated with them and facilitated their work with their genius.

The delightful anecdotes about the works of horticulturalists in India are another interesting aspect of this book. One such story tells how, during his first trip to India in 1785, the physician and botanist Dr Francis Buchanan-Hamilton (1762-1829) lent his shipmate Alexander Boswell the notes he had made from the lectures of his teacher Dr John Hope. Boswell lost these notes during a military encounter at Satimangala in 1790. Buchanan’s precious notes fell into the hands of Tipu Sultan, who, realising their value, had them bound. In 1799, when Tipu fell in the siege of Seringapatam, the notes were discovered in Tipu’s library by a Major Ogg and duly returned to Buchanan.

From the earliest drawings made in the Mughal period down to contemporary artists, Martyn Rix most comprehensively covers the history of botanical art in India. Rix points out that despite its long tradition in India, botanical illustration was “not a flourishing activity” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the absence of financial support that was earlier available in the courts and in the employ of surgeons and botanists of the East India Company, many highly skilled artists began to work for the tourist market instead.

However, Rix believes that the situation has changed of late. He writes: “Fortunately, in comparatively recent times there has been an international revival of interest in botanical illustration and flower painting, and once again there are some very talented Indian artists working in this field.” Thakur Ganga Singh (1895-1970), P.N. Sharma (born 1922), Ramesh Chandra Sharma (born 1948), Damodar Lal Gurjar (born 1958), Jaggu Prasad (born 1963), Hemlata Pradhan (born 1974) and Nirupa Rao (born 1990) are among the post-Independence artists whose works Rix has showcased in this book.

A treasure trove of rare pictures and information, this book will delight not only art lovers but also those interested in botany and Indian history.