Explore

A petal says a thousand words

Sumana Roy | Updated on October 23, 2020 Published on October 22, 2020

Lost in time: The names of botanical artists are rarely found in museums or galleries, and consequently they have found no homes in our consciousness - ISTOCK.COM   -  Getty Images

Gatekeepers of mainstream art history have often denied entry to practitioners of botanical paintings

* I write down the names on my notebook, to help commit them to memory: Neera Joshi, Hemlata Pradhan, Sumrita Gotamay. And towards the end: Rohini Devasher, Meena Subramaniam, and after Sunoj D, Damodar Lal Gurjar and Mahaveer Swami, photographs by Simryn Gill. It is impossible to not notice that many of these artists are women

* The Weight of a Petal: Ars Botanica is a fascinating whisper of a volume; fascinating also because it’s uncommon

“The weight of a petal has changed the face of the world and made it ours,” wrote anthropologist Loren Eiseley in the essay How Flowers Changed the World, in his first book The Immense Journey: An imaginative naturalist explores the mysteries of man and nature (1957). Sita Reddy, editor of the MARG special issue on botanical art, picks the phrase ‘the weight of a petal’ as the title of the volume. The subtitle of the editorial essay gives us the ambition of the volume: Refiguring the Botanical Art Archive (December 2018-March 2019, Volume 70 Number 2). It is a project that has rarely been attempted by India’s art historians or botanists. Reddy gives us the reason: It’s a “genre poised between the worlds of art and science, has genealogical roots that run both ways — toward beauty as well as utility”.

I paused as I read that sentence, its formulation, the fact that Reddy needed to put “beauty” and “utility” at different ends of a see-saw. It is not her fault, it is the times we are living through, her anxiety and her need to justify her project, to record the history of neglect of the genre Ars Botanica. What is the need for a project such as this in a world where violence against humans by humans does not let us sleep at night? Or, as Bertolt Brecht asked — “What kind of times are these, when to talk about trees is almost a crime”.

Reading through the essays in The Weight of a Petal: Ars Botanica, and stopping to look and stare and touch the artwork that are not illustrations but essays in their own right, I feel grateful. First — for the names. The first nine pages of the journal are devoted to various botanical art schools in the Himalayas, and on the last page of this section I discover a signature in pencil: ‘Celestina Lepcha’. It’s a girl’s name, and, from the handwriting, I imagine it belonging to a young girl. The surname comes from my part of the world — the Eastern Himalayas. I have not encountered the surname in the world of Indian art. And I spend as much time looking at the drawings on her ruled notebook (not the canvas of other artists here, but a matter-of-fact school notebook) as I do on reading the essays. I see a tradition being created before my eyes.

I write down the names on my notebook, to help commit them to memory: Neera Joshi, Hemlata Pradhan, Sumrita Gotamay. And towards the end: Rohini Devasher, Meena Subramaniam, and after Sunoj D, Damodar Lal Gurjar and Mahaveer Swami, photographs by Simryn Gill. It is impossible to not notice that many of these artists are women. It is rare in any school of art, even in the rich tradition of women botanical painters from the colonial period. The frustration of seeing the indifference of art critics and historians to Mrinalini Mukherjee’s art and sculpture on plant life, of their dismissal of hemp fibre as “female” material in contrast to the masculinity and monumentality of stone — all those thoughts returned to me.

I had also been reading Shakespeare’s Sister, the third section of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, with my students. The grudging entry ticket of gatekeeper art historians to both the genre of botanical art and its practitioners is self-evident. It is the reason I mention the names of artists in this volume — they are rarely found in museums or galleries, and consequently they have found no homes in our consciousness.

As I read about what the Mughals brought to botanical art in India, a way of looking that did not exist in the culture of seeing until then, the illustration of plants in Tanjore art, the significance of Lalbagh to the botanical imagination in the subcontinent, a 17th-century Dutch archive of Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, 740 drawings of Malabar plants, I couldn’t help noticing the obvious — how what has, in shorthand, been called the Oriental imagination had interpreted and othered plant life as much as it had done the human and the social. “Refiguring” the archive had also, for Reddy, meant bringing in the figure of the woman into it. And so, apart from the living artists, there is also an essay about the 19th-century “draughtswoman and botanist” Marianne North’s ‘Sacred Plants of the Hindus’ at Kew.

The Weight of a Petal: Ars Botanica is a fascinating whisper of a volume; fascinating also because it’s uncommon. It is guided by an editorial imagination that refuses to distinguish the serious from the seemingly non-serious. And so I was glad to see Gaganendranath Tagore’s watercolour Jagadish Chandra Bose Demonstrating His New Apparatus, along with his cartoons of Bose. Humour is rarely invoked in the genre of botanical art, and I laughed when I saw Tagore turn Bose’s relationship with the Mimosa pudica, the touch-me-not, into a cartoon.

I wondered whether Bose would have been as affected by the cartoon as the Mimosa is by our touch.

 

Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree;

Twitter: @SumanaSiliguri

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

Published on October 22, 2020
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor