Stuff of legends

Print edition : May 03, 2013

'Their Excellencies Lord and Lady Curzon with the first day's Bag' from the Album ‘Souvenir of the Visit of their Excellencies Lord and Lady Curzon to Hyderabad, Deccan’. Photo taken by Deen Dayal & Sons, 1902. Photo: Alkazi Collection of Photography

Sikar Party Amarkantak 1914, from the Album ‘Rewa Royal House, 1883-1918’. Photo taken by J. Nath & Badri Pd. Misra. Photo: Alkazi Collection of Photography

Edwin Joubert Van Ingen with his hunting dogs at his bungalow in Mysore. An undated photograph from the 1980s. Photo: Photo Courtesy Rainbow Colour Labs, Mysore

A Van Ingen stool made from an elephant foot. This is part of a private collection in Mysore. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

A Van Ingen tiger head trophy. This is part of the Mysore Palace collection. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

A display of three gaurs, or Indian bisons, with a mastiff in the foreground. The mastiff, named Brumel, was a pet of Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar, the last king of Mysore. The Mysore royalty were patrons of the Van Ingens. This is part of the Mysore Palace collection. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

A Van Ingen elephant head trophy. This is part of the Mysore Palace collection. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

An especially well done Van Ingen tiger mount. Part of the Mysore Palace collection. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

Animal mounts done by the Van Ingens. From the Mysore Palace collection. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

Van Ingen & Van Ingen of Mysore were the master taxidermists of colonial India at a time when hunting was a thriving sport, and their work was prized and sought after around the world. With the death of Edwin Joubert Van Ingen in March 2013, a fascinating saga has come to a close.

IN the introduction to one of his collected volumes of stories, R.K. Narayan described how, in India, “the writer has only to look out of the window to pick up a character and thereby a story”. The Mysore-based author must have often spotted a member of the Van Ingen family in a Willys jeep as he looked out of his window, providing inspiration for the character of Vasu, the irascible taxidermist in The Man-Eater of Malgudi.

The Van Ingen family made Mysore its home in the 19th century and its members were internationally reputed taxidermists. The firm Van Ingen & Van Ingen was started by Eugene Melville Van Ingen (d. 1928) in 1912 and was managed by his sons—John de Wet (1902-1993), Henry Botha (1904-1996) and Edwin Joubert (1912-2013)—until it shut shop in 1999. A fourth brother, Kruger, seems not to have been active in the taxidermy business. With the death of Joubert on March 12, 2013, at his home in Mysore at the age of 101, the fascinating saga of the Van Ingen taxidermists has come to an end. His death also means that a vital link with India’s wildlife history has been snapped forever as the Van Ingen factory was one of the world’s largest, if not the largest, taxidermy firms in the 20th century.

Hunting and taxidermy have gone hand in hand since at least the 19th century in India when hunters wanted to remember their shikars with more than a photograph. In India, hunting is an ancient, royal tradition. Kings (and some queens) had reputations as fearless hunters, and it was a widely accepted royal pastime. The Mughal emperor Jahangir is said to have personally killed 80 tigers.

The tradition continued during colonial rule. One of India’s major attractions for young British officers who spent long years away from home was big-game hunting. Through most of the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th, the colonial government strongly encouraged hunting, as some big mammals like tigers were considered little better than vermin. According to Mahesh Rangarajan, the well-known environmental historian, rewards were paid out for the capture and killing of 80,000 tigers and 150,000 leopards between 1875 and 1920.

Some people like George Yule, the fourth president of the Indian National Congress, had an astonishing tally of 400 tigers, while another Briton, Montague Gerrard, was not far behind with 227. After a successful shoot and the obligatory post-hunt photograph, the tiger, or any other large animal that was shot, was carefully skinned. The skin was then immediately dispatched to a professional taxidermist with instructions on how this most important memento should be saved for posterity. The lure of accumulating trophies that could then be shipped back home was most attractive and the theme has been immortalised by Saki (pen name of Hector Hugh Munro), the acclaimed Edwardian-era British writer.

Why were the colonialists such keen hunters? Some answers are provided in The Empire of Nature: Hunting Conservation and British Imperialism, a work by the renowned historian of imperialism John M. Mackenzie. He writes that “...hunting represented a historic cultural interaction which the British were able to use to build social bridges with Indians, particularly the Indian aristocracy. They consciously sought to inherit the mantle of the Mughals through an opulent and highly visible command of the environment, as well as to establish relations with the princely states through an apparently shared enthusiasm.” Another historian, Joseph Sramek, writes that “...tiger hunting was an important symbol in the construction of British imperial and masculine identities during the nineteenth century”. William K. Storey, a historian who has written on the connection between big cats and imperialism, writes that “...colonial big-game hunting was an ‘invented’ tradition appropriated from the original inhabitants of the colonies and reinterpreted. It articulated a language of power over ‘restless natives’...”

While the British were keen hunters, the native princes were not far behind in their blood lust. Mahesh Rangarajan writes in India’s Wildlife History that Sadul Singh, the Maharajah of Bikaner, shot nearly “...50,000 head of animals and a further 46,000 birds...”, including 33 tigers, over a quarter-century period. His tally when it came to the majestic cat was overwhelmingly exceeded by the Nawab of Tonk, who is supposed to have shot a total of 600 tigers. Another native prince, Ramanuj Saran Singh Deo of Sarguja, is said to have shot an astounding 2,000 leopards. Rangarajan writes that for the native princes, the killing of wild animals was a rite of passage into adulthood.

An elaborate hunt organised for the benefit of a British official or a visiting dignitary by a native rajah was also often a chance for the Indian ruler to demonstrate his loyalty to the British crown. A report in Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (Vol. 28, 1922), for example, describes in detail a hunt organised in Nepal by the Maharajah for the visiting Prince of Wales. In a space of seven days, between December 14 and 21, 1921, the Prince and his entourage were responsible for bagging 17 tigers, nine rhinoceroses, two bears and two leopards, apart from other, smaller game.

This provides the context to the work of the Van Ingens. Hunting was widespread in India. Magazines and memoirs celebrating hunting abounded, attesting to the sport’s popularity. Conversations in social clubs revolved around the latest shooting expedition. The services of professional taxidermists were much sought after to fuel the demand for trophies. From the 1920s onwards, the Van Ingens in Mysore emerged as the taxidermists of choice. They were not the only taxidermists in the country but easily the largest and the most well-known.

To appreciate the scale of the work done by the Van Ingens, one must turn to a study done by P.A. Morris, a zoologist formerly at the Royal Holloway College, University of London, and the foremost authority on taxidermy in the world. According to him, the Van Ingen factory was processing 400-500 tigers annually from the 1920s to the late 1950s. Most of the tigers were processed in three basic ways: rugs, whole mounts and head or shoulder trophies. Apart from tigers, a wide variety of other animals like leopards, bears, antelopes and bison also passed through the portals of the Van Ingen factory during its heyday, well before the passage of the landmark Wildlife Conservation Act of 1972 put a stop to hunting for sport. A representative table for seven years from 1933 to 1939 should give the reader an idea of the scale of work that took place at the factory (see table).

Ajoy Lobo, a family friend of Edwin Joubert Van Ingen, fished out a bulging file of yellowing brittle paper when this journalist visited his home on the outskirts of Bangalore. Even a cursory survey of this file containing the Van Ingens’ correspondence for the year 1941 gives one the geographical range of the firm’s clientele. Princes from the native states of Vizianagram, Vijaynagar, Wankaner, Manipur and Jaipur had placed orders with the Van Ingen firm. Correspondence with British military and administrative officers and civilians (doctors and tea estate owners) from Peshawar, Ahmednagar, Kirkee (Khadki), Lahore, Nagpur, Ahmedabad, Jubbulpore (Jabalpur), Mirpur Khas, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Madurai, Cochin (Kochi), Indore, Baluchistan, Pachmarhi, Bareilly, Poona (Pune) and Bombay (Mumbai) shows how the Van Ingen firm had emerged as the leading taxidermist across British India. There were even orders from London, Sussex and New York, showing how its work was recognised beyond the subcontinent as well.

According to a brochure printed sometime in the 1950s, the Van Ingens counted the King of Spain, a prince of Iran, 14 Indian princes, seven Viceroys, six provincial governors, nine British peers, two admirals and several other dignitaries among their patrons.

Even today, the work of the Van Ingens has tremendous cachet internationally, particularly among taxidermy aficionados. There is a firm in Perth, Australia, that calls itself Van Ingen Mysore and specialises in sourcing and selling Van Ingen products. Prominent British taxidermists also have Van Ingen products for sale. Van Ingen mounts find themselves at the pinnacle of historical taxidermy work along with the work of taxidermists like Rowland Ward.

Their products are spread all over the world—in private collections, natural history museums, social clubs, and so on. One of the finest collections of Van Ingen work is, unfortunately, not available for public viewing as it lies sequestered at the Mysore Palace. A special permit is required to visit the trophy room, which has mounts and shields of several tigers in various poses, bears, lions, wild boar, elephants, assorted deer, rhinoceroses, crocodiles and leopards. There are also African animals such as giraffes and zebras. The Mysore Maharajahs were great patrons of the Van Ingens, and there is also a mount of a pet mastiff called Brumel, a favourite of Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar, the last ruler of Mysore, in the trophy room.

The Regional Museum of Natural History in Mysore is another place where several Van Ingen mounts can be seen (including perhaps what could be a mount of India’s last cheetah, shot dead in 1947). John Thomas, a taxidermist at the museum, marvelled at the quality of the Van Ingen products but pointed out that their method differed slightly from that of modern taxidermists as the factory operated like an assembly line, handling hundreds of skins, whereas a contemporary taxidermist would work on one model at a time. A modern taxidermist would also prepare a mould to fit each specimen perfectly, whereas Van Ingen’s papier-mâché manikins came in pre-fixed sizes.

The factory—which employed close to 200 people during its heyday according to Kendaganna Swamy, a 70-year-old former employee of the factory—seemed to process the humungous quantities of animal skins that they were receiving from across the country by slightly tweaking the rigorous methods of modern taxidermists but they also had the advantage of experimenting with thousands of skins. The Van Ingens were also hunters themselves and often went hunting in the lush forests that surrounded Mysore. Prominent residents of Mysore have vivid memories of their encounters with the Van Ingens, particularly Edwin Joubert Van Ingen, a veteran of the Second World War, who remained sprightly until a few years before his death. Ullas Karanth, the leading tiger conservationist, remembers taking carcasses of road kills of big cats to the Van Ingen factory in the 1980s. He said: “With Jubert’s death, we have lost the last hunter-naturalist. He was the last of his kind and it is a pity that we do not have taxidermy artists of the Van Ingen calibre anymore.” Dr K. Javeed Nayeem, a writer and a practising physician based in Mysore, said: “He knew a lot about animal behaviour. He loved nature and even knew when different flowers bloomed in and around Mysore. He was also a keen angler.”

P.A. Morris said: “Meeting Joubert Van Ingen was a memorable experience. Shaking his hand was like building a bridge into the past, reaching out to a major part of India’s history. Over cups of strong tea, he would tell tales of hunting and fishing, the like of which we seldom hear today. As a trained sculptor, he made a vital contribution to the excellence of Van Ingen taxidermy.”

It is hard to believe now that there was a time in the not–too-distant past when thousands of tigers and other animals passed through the portico of the Van Ingen factory. Current estimates put the tiger population in India at fewer than 2,000. The density of the historical tiger population in India, and its furious destruction, can be gauged when we realise that more tigers were processed by the Van Ingens in a few years than the entire tiger population in India today. Similar studies can be done for other animals as well, but efforts need to be made to professionally archive the records of “Van Ingen & Van Ingen: Artists in Taxidermy”.

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