Botanical art is a genre “poised between the worlds of art & science”. Its purpose is two-fold: beauty and utility – Sita Reddy, Historian
An exquisite collection of rare paintings, dyes, fabrics, and type specimens of the Botanical Survey of India is all set to go public.
After an arduous decade-long exercise undertaken by the Botanical Survey of India, the entire collection of Roxburgh drawings was digitized earlier this month. The collection will now be available at https://archive.bsi.gov.in.
The rare and enticing collection of botanical paintings held by the Botanical Survey of India is a captivating record of India’s plant diversity.
It was back in the 1840s that the British botanist William Griffith discovered the rare holoparasitic flowering plant ‘Sapria Himalayana in Arunachal Pradesh. In those times, there were not several ways to document newly discovered species of flora & fauna.
Thus, a botanical portrait of the plant with bright red flowers and sulphur yellow dots was made for the first time in 1842, by a painter named Lutchman Singh, near Kolkata.
Botanical painting: a captivating record of India’s plant diversity
Botanical painting is a school of painting that strives to infuse life and vibrancy into every part of a living thing with incredible, microscopic detail, with the flick of a brush.
Prior to the invention of photography, the botanical painting was an indispensable way to the study of Botany as it was the only existing way to visually record diverse plant species. These paintings allowed botanists to have a better impression and understanding of novel plant species than several pages of written text that went alongside.
Tracing the roots:
Although the intricate art of botanical painting is perceived to have come into existence around the late 18th century, in India.
However, the tradition of botanical painting dates back as early as the Harappan civilization with one of the pioneering being the famous unicorn & pipal tree seal, a much-vaunted archaeological artifact.
Thousands of such botanical paintings, unique and almost two centuries old, are rare and valuable not only because of the artistic talent of the Indian painters but also because they highlight the country’s plant diversity.
Biggest ever collection of botanical paintings:
The Central National Herbarium of the Botanical Survey of India (BSI) has the biggest ever collection of botanical paintings, comprising close to 3,280 large botanical paintings made by about 20 painters, whose names appear on the paintings.
Prior to these works by Lutchman Singh, Gopal Dass, and others, about 2,532 Roxburgh drawings were made which were found with no name of their painters. However, most of the Roxburgh artists are believed to be miniatures painters from the Mughal courts.
World’s oldest & largest herbariums:
The only place other than the BSI archives in India where the Roxburgh paintings can be viewed is the Kew Museum in London. The BSI, however, has the largest collection of Indian Botanical paintings, about 6,000 in number, which has been brought into the public domain through archiving and digitization.
The recently digitized economic botany herbarium databases contain about 20,000 representative herbarium sheets. More than 27,000 type specimens of phanerogams (plants with seeds) and 1,700 type specimens of cryptogams (plants without seeds) are also available in the portal.
Among the oldest collection of type specimens at the Central National Herbarium is the Lepidagathis scariosa, a woody, velvet-hairy prostrate herb collected by Robert Wright in 1817 from Travancore. With a collection of over 2 million herbarium sheets, the Central National Herbarium is one of the oldest and largest herbariums in the world, with collections not only from India but also from other countries.
About Roxburgh drawings:
Named after the Scottish botanist and physician, William Roxburgh (1751-1815), also known as the father of Indian botany for his contribution to plant taxonomy in India.
William Roxburgh came to India in 1776 and soon after his arrival, he began describing native plants available to him with the help of a life-sized painting of the plant and supporting text. In all, he described 2,600 plants with paintings made of 2,500 of them.
A collection of three hundred Roxburgh drawings & descriptions was published as ‘Plants of the coast of Coromandel’.
A rare collection of natural dyes, textile designs & imp plants also preserved:
Apart from botanical paintings, the digital archive also displays rare natural dyes, fabrics, and type specimens. Each of these rare holdings has its own story. Scottish businessman, Thomas Wardle’s 3,500 samples of dye patterns extracted from 64 Indian plants compiled in 15 volumes is also part of the collection.
The digital collection also comprises 18 volumes of textile designs containing about 1,700 samples, along with natural dyes.
The Silk, cotton, muslin, and wool fabrics have been captioned as the Textiles Manufactures and Costumes of the People of India, compiled by John Forbes Watson in 1866 and 1874.
The different categories of commercially important plants in the collection include gums, resins, natural dyes, fiber, cereals, pulses, and medicinal and timber-yielding plants. These were initially made by Sir George Watt (1851-1930), who collected plants and plant-based economic products throughout then British India.
Collection: Tremendous contribution to research in botany, taxonomy:
The rare digital collection carefully compiled and nurtured by the BSI is set to be a tremendous contributor to research in the field of botany and taxonomy and a huge step towards reviving India’s rich heritage and plant diversity.
More so, in the post-COVID-19 scenario, this online database will be of immense help to the scientific fraternity working in plant taxonomy and other applied fields.