The tryst between brush and botany blooms at this exhibition on 19th-Century watercolour drawings of the forests and gardens of South India
What do Shimoga in Karnataka, the Malabar region, the Lalbagh park in Bengaluru, and the Government Garden in Udhagamandalam have in common? Well, the watchful eye of the first Conservator of Forests for the Madras Presidency, Hugh Cleghorn.
A doctor by profession, Cleghorn catalogued the flora of vast swathes of southern India, ably aided by the artistic temperaments of local Indian illustrators in the mid-1800s. Cleghorn’s work has inspired Dr Henry Noltie of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, to bring to DakshinaChitra here in the city, 54 watercolour drawings for a first-of-its-kind exhibition of botanical artistry — The Forests and Gardens of South India.
“This is such a wonderful collaboration of British and Indian sensibilities, it’s a travesty that it’s sometimes called ‘Company School painting’. It should be called ‘Indian Export Art’ where the Indian artists get their due, like the British gentleman have,” laments Noltie, who has dedicated two decades to bringing Cleghorn’s work to his birthplace, Madras.
The bureaucratic red tape, that binds centuries-old original artwork, came undone when Vaishnavi Ramanathan (Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai) informed Noltie that high-resolution scans and prints could help him bring the artwork back to its roots. The 54 watercolour drawings bring to life the everyday and the exotic, from the tamarind sapling to the lotus, plants indigenous to the region and those imported from across the oceans.
Two Indian artists’ tryst with brush and botany blooms alive, over a century after their inception, in this exhibition. Cleghorn, in 1842, started off as an Assistant Surgeon with the East India Company in Madras, travelling across the region, administering vaccines to control smallpox. His employment of a local artist to draw plant specimens, was inspired by his association with botanist Robert Wight and the Director of Kew Gardens, Sir William Hooker.
“It was at this time, that he met this Marathi artist, who I think was a sandalwood carver. He painted one plant species a day, for over a year,” explains Noltie, his eyes lighting up with admiration for the man with no formal training in botanical artwork. Cleghorn was then handed another able set of hands, in Telugu-speaking Govindoo, when Wight left Madras. A majority of the work on display is the handiwork of this artist, whose understanding of colour is matched by his appreciation of natural symmetry. The teak and sal forests of Andhra, the Nilgiris, Annamalai forests and Malabar coast were painstakingly recorded by Govindoo.
“In 1852, when Cleghorn worked as Secretary of the Agri-Horticultural Society, he was also in touch with the founder of the Madras School of Art, and employed two of his students, Mooroogasen Moodeliar and T Rangasawmy, to record plants and copy book illustrations,” adds Noltie.
The present exhibition is a geographical fairytale, “from the undulating plateau of Mysore and the primeval forests of Coorg and Malabar, where European furniture cracks and warps, to the Malabar ghauts, where in the south-west monsoon, the lancet, in pockets, coats with rust”. The flora around the sandy beaches South of Fort St George, the mangroves of the Adyar river, the dry deciduous forests of Guindy and the salt marshes North of Madras were documented by Rangasawmy and Moodeliar.
The Gardens of South India, tell a different tale. The mid-19th Century witnessed the introduction of a host of plants from South America and Australia to southern India. Yams were grown for business, while jacaranda trees were ornamental. Eucalyptus trees were planted, for their sturdy timber, with no forethought to the tyranny wrought on native specimens in the region. Specimens from Lalbagh and Government gardens, Udhagamandalam, were also represented at the exhibition.
“I did not have any notes on the artists themselves. There were hundreds of thousands of pressed plant specimens and over 3,000 drawings. I reconstructed the story based on the dated work, references of the plants and material left behind by Cleghorn,” sums up Noltie. He adds, “I’m glad he took the papers back to Britain, because these masterpieces would have never survived the humidity of Chennai!”
The Forests and Gardens of South India will be on at DakshinaChitra up to January 30. The exhibition will then move to Goethe-Zentrum in Hyderabad, from February 14 to March 1.