In the last edition of Marg magazine, art historian Sita Reddy challenges the perception that vegetation and rootedness are inextricably linked. Plants are the world’s “first globalisers”, she writes – they “rarely sit still”, they are always “on the move”, and one way to trace their movements through geography and history is through botanical art.

According to Reddy, botanical art is a genre “poised between the worlds of art and science”. Its purpose is two-fold: beauty and utility. For instance, while medieval flower paintings were meant solely for viewing pleasure, the illustrations of ancient herbals were used as a means to identify medicinal plants.

In India, botanical art has largely been associated with the Company School of Art, which came into existence around the late 18th century. But the tradition goes back much further. One of the earliest examples of it is the famous unicorn and pipal tree seal from Harappa, a much-vaunted archaeological artefact.

“Depictions of plants abound in early Indian art: see carvings on temple walls, pottery designs, motifs on woven carpets and embroidered textiles, representations of the Buddha at Bodh Gaya, and illustrated folios from medieval manuscripts of Hindu epics among other things,” said Nachiket Chanchani, associate professor of South Asian Art and Visual Culture at the University of Michigan.

A small temple beneath the Bodhi tree, Bodh Gaya, c. 1810. Photo credit: British Library/Wikimedia Commons [CC0 Public Domain].

One reason for this abundance is the role plants have played in Indic lore and mythology. The Kadamba tree and Tulsi bush feature repeatedly in Vaishnava literature. The Datura and Bilva trees are said to be the favourites of the Hindu god Shiva. The Bodhi or sacred fig tree is irrevocably linked to Buddhism. The lotus, as a symbol of purity and wisdom, serves as the seat for many deities, while the Devi is partial to the red hibiscus, evocative as it is of fertility and power. The worship of entire groves or forests is common practice in rural India. The coconut, palm, banana, banyan and pipal trees are all considered sacred for different reasons. All these traditions have naturally spilled over into Indian art.

Ornamental plants

The miniatures and manuscripts of medieval India were especially evocative, with rich botanical art punctuating many a folio. Some of this art was highly stylised and often used only for purposes of embellishment or composition.

In her essay Gita Govinda: Illustrated Manuscripts from Rajasthan in the anthology Finding Radha, art scholar Kapila Vatsyayan outlined the compositional use of botanicals in art in the 15th and 16th centuries. Referring to the pocket-sized illustrated Gita Govinda, now housed in the BJ Institute of Indology, Ahmedabad, she wrote: “The painter of this set divides the flat surfaces into different zones through trees and foliage, and arranges groups of figures within the arches formed by the branches.” Later on, in the late 17th century, “The arches of the first phase become bowers, representing consecrated celestial space, while the trees represent terrestrial space…The similes and metaphors of the poem are transformed into natural landscape – flora, fauna, birds and animals.”

A yogi seated in a garden. North Indian or Deccani miniature painting, c.1620-40. Photo credit: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons [CC0 Public Domain].

Whether Deccani, Pahari, Rajasthani or Mughlai, trees were a ubiquitous component of Indian art, “added not as mere decoration, but to enhance the mood and to evoke the idea of paradisiacal gardens, in order to complement the painting’s narrative,” as art critic Uma Nair observed in an essay.

The plastic arts from the Mughal period too had a proliferation of botanical arts, reflecting the Quranic idea of jannat. In art history, the term plastic arts broadly refers to art that is made by manipulating plastic material such as ceramics, wood, stone and glass. Not only were Mughal rulers passionate gardeners, but also patrons of art and architecture. Mughal art scholar Ebba Koch, in her Marg essay titled Flowers in Mughal Architecture, explained the abundant use of vegetative motifs in the carvings of the Taj Mahal – arguably the apogee of Mughal art. “For Shah Jahan and his conceptualists, one of the means to give the mausoleum paradisiacal qualities was to set it in a real garden with real trees and flowers. However, nature is perishable and impermanent. Lasting paradisiacal qualities could be ensured with artificial plants and flowers, which would bloom eternally.”

The Taj Mahal. Photo credit: Anoop Pushkar/Wikimedia Commons [CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license].

In fact, during the Mughal period, botanical representations in art grew more naturalistic, influenced by Europeans, for whom the hallmark of high art was naturalism. A few later Indian rulers such as Raja Serfoji II (1798-1832) of Tanjore and his regent Amar Singh (1787-98) patronised naturalistic botanical art. Some of it is preserved today in an album titled Tanjore Grains at the Natural History Museum, London.

“Representations of flora in pre-colonial South Asian material and visual cultures reflect manifold and shifting ideas toward the plant world,” said Chanchani. “In sharp contrast, some Company School botanical paintings and treatises written in the backdrop of British colonialism offer a narrower understanding of nature.”

Orchid Tree or Pride of Burma (Amherstia nobilis): flowering branch with separate fruit and sectioned ovary. Chromolithograph by P. Depannemaeker, c. 1885, after B. Hoola van Nooten. Picture credit: Welcome Library, London/Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-4.0

European herbals

This “narrower understanding” of botanical art among Europeans came from a primarily scientific need to document the botanical resources of the strange new land called India. The first avid commissions were made by the surgeon-botanists posted here by the various East India Companies from the late 17th century onwards. With the motivations of understanding, using and exporting the herbal wealth of India, they compiled many works of botanical art that were accurately illustrated, often by Indian artists. This phase of botanical art is studied under what is called the Company School of Art or Kampani kalam.

Some of the most notable works in this genre include the Dutch botanical 12-volume masterpiece Hortus Indicus Malabaricus (1678-93) commissioned by Hendrik Van Reede, Carl Linnaeus’ Species Plantarum (1753), the French Jardin de Lorixa or the Garden of Orissa (1698-1725) compiled by Nicolas L’Empereur, William Roxburgh’s Plants of the Coast of Coromandel (1793), Robert Wight’s The Wight Collection (1826-28), Alexander Gibson’s The Dapuri Collection (1846-1850) and Hugh Francis Clarke Cleghorn’s The Cleghorn Collection (1845-1847), among others.

Aerides maculosa. Photo credit: Miss Drake/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Botanical scholar Henry Noltie has reservations about the term “herbals” – used to denote scientific botanical art – despite them holding invaluable information about plant sciences and art. In his lecture on the Dapuri Drawings, organised by the Piramal Museum of Art in Mumbai in February, Noltie said it was time to recognise the many nameless Indian artists who created the works of art, and not just those who commissioned them. His tentative proposition was the term “Indian Export Art”, which would imply a necessary shift in agency.

“I (and other historians like William Dalrymple) passionately believe that the time has come for this work to be acknowledged as a major phase of Indian art, and not some minor, slightly embarrassing, aberration,” Noltie said. “Showing this work under a new designation is only the start – but the change in focus should allow new scholarship by art historians, especially those with the linguistic skills to try to find hidden archives, or oral traditions.”

Aconitum chasmanthum. Photo credit: Kanhoba Ranchoddas Kirtikar and Baman Das Basu/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Moving forward, there are two needs: to refigure the botanical archives, and to foster new talents and interest. “The exciting thing is that there is a revival already going on in India and Nepal, as is evident from the latest Marg volume – the work of Hemlata Pradhan and Neera Joshi, both as first-rate exponents, but also as teachers of botanical art to children,” Noltie said.

Other botanical artists making their presence felt include Alisha Dutt Islam, who recently illustrated Pradip Krishen’s Abha Mahal Bagh: A Garden of Wild Plants from the Thar Desert, and Nirupa Rao. Noltie is confident that “the revived interest in India’s incredible historical tradition by academic historians, and my own work, will surely show the value of the genre – its visual beauty, of course, speaks for itself”.