Himalayan Roots: Botanical Art Schools in the 21st Century.
--John Ruskin, "On Leaf Beauty", Modern Painters
BOTANICAL ART AND ILLUSTRATION HAVE UNCOMMONLY long roots in the Himalaya. With its great diversity in altitudes, climatic conditions and habitat, the Himalayan region sustains more than 9,000 species of flowering plants, including orchids and rhododendrons, countless types of flowerless mosses, algae, fungi, and a large variety of trees, both evergreen and deciduous. In 1802, East India Company surgeon Francis Buchanan-Hamilton commissioned the first plant drawings--to accompany collected specimens--from Nepal. Nathaniel Wallich, Superintendent of the Calcutta botanic garden, did the same on his trips to study Himalayan plants in the 1820s. Some decades later, explorer-naturalist Joseph Dalton Hooker set off on a long Himalayan journey to "acquire a knowledge of exotic botany". Despite local obstacles to botanizing for Empire--for Buchanan from the Raja of Nepal, for Hooker from the Raja of Sikkim--they persevered, each sending back to Britain drawings of more than 7,000 collected species.
Despite their differing views on using local artists, both Buchanan and Hooker believed that art could push botanical science forward through the accurate identification of new species; and could help preserve the endangered natural world for future generations. These twin impulses--the taxonomic and the ecological--would find expression in botanical art pedagogy two centuries later.
Two botanical illustration schools--founded by two remarkable South Asian women--follow in the footsteps of Buchanan and Hooker, one in Kathmandu, the other in Kalimpong. In Kathmandu, Studio Petals founded by Neera Joshi in 2004 was described by her collaborator the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) as the culmination of a 200-year relationship between Nepal and Britain. In Kalimpong, the Himalayan Institute of Natural History Art (HINHA) founded by Hemlata Pradhan walks in Hooker's wake to revive the dying tradition of Indian botanical art, and awaken ecological ways of seeing the natural world by teaching art to young village children.
While both Neera and Hemlata trained at prestigious botanical illustration schools abroad--Kew and Edinburgh, with backgrounds in taxonomy--they also have strong links to contemporary art movements and teaching institutions in Nepal and India. Neera's studio was once located next door to the legendary Park Gallery of her father R.N. Joshi, a leading modern artist. Hemlata, hailing from four generations of horticulturists and botanists, trained as a printmaker at Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan. Contemporary art practice shaped their aesthetic sensibilities, their early professional lives. But it was "nature"--and their deep love for Himalayan botany--that led them to teach botanical art to Himalayan residents.
Neera's career began in 1999 with the acclaimed exhibition Flora of Kathmandu Valley. In 2002, she went to Sarasota, Florida to train at the Marie Selby Botanic Gardens where, working with orchid specialist Stig Dalstrom, she created 14 botanical art works of rare endangered orchids on the IUCN red list. Later, she exhibited at the RBGE, where she honed her skills by learning to make scientific line drawings from the Herbarium, her work featuring in the third volume of Flora of Nepal. She was invited--as the only Nepalese botanical artist--to collaborate in the groundbreaking 2016 exhibition, Flora of Nepal (http://www.floraofnepal.org/).
Hemlata is the daughter of the renowned botanist Udai Chandra Pradhan; she grew up reading her father's pioneering books on orchids, rhododendrons, cobra lilies and other Himalayan plants. She earned a Diploma in Botanical Illustration from Kew Gardens, and went on to the Royal College of Art for a Master's in Natural History Illustration and Ecological Studies. But it was when returning home from the UK in 2002 that she had an epiphany: "... It was a heart-rending experience to see that large areas of trees had been felled, huge portions of hills cut away and unique spots of natural beauty irreversibly damaged by the Teesta Hydro-Dam Project...as well as other places in the Himalayan foothills. Thousands of orchids and other plants of great scientific and aesthetic interest ... in the valley were eliminated without a second thought. In a situation like this, it is not just the flora but the whole ecosystem that gets ruthlessly disturbed...I thus began to question how I could possibly contribute as a botanical illustrator and join in the crusade to save our natural heritage."
Hemlata and Neera learnt by doing and taught by example. One response was to change the way art schools taught botanical art. Hemlata began to incorporate in her art whole habitats and lifecycles of plants (which some times take months and years to complete) to help bring public awareness of plant ecology so that conservation biologists as well as laypersons could take measures both in-situ and ex-situ. Neera developed a colouring book of 12 native flowers for the Kathmandu botanic garden as a pedagogical tool to educate children about endangered Himalayan flora (now adopted as a textbook model by the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation).
A second innovation was to change who could learn botanical art. India's botanical artist genealogies in its colonial-era "Company School" period were infamously caste-based, excluding groups even as they reproduced hierarchies across time. In post-independence India, these botanical art traditions died due to an absence of patrons, advent of new technologies and shifting of audiences. How then to rethink botanical pedagogy and structural change through art schools? It struck both Hemlata and Neera that children and non-specialist amateurs might be the best learners and the quickest change-agents.
When speaking of conservation and sustainability, Hemlata uses the term "grassroots"--the point at which to begin if our ecosystems are to be better managed. Her school focuses on children from underprivileged families in local villages, aged 6-12. At first, curricula--developed with artist friends from Santiniketan--introduced colour and art to build field observation and drawing skills. Later, they included nature journalling, blind and contour drawing, the use of watercolour and pen-and-ink, how to create colour charts and mix colours (especially greens and browns for the Himalaya). Children learn how to make dried and spirit specimens, herbaria, seed banks, compost, all with a view to empowering them as ecological citizens.
Neera emphasizes that while children and laypersons are especially welcome at her studio, so are botanists, scientists and taxonomists. In addition to beginner courses, she offers advanced courses on taxonomic tools for Flora writers, some of which have been published by Tribhuvan University where her botanical illustrations provide reference (http://dpr.gov.np/download/publications/taxonomic_tools_flora_writing.pdf).
Studio Petals and HINHA map the extraordinary promise of postcolonial Himalayan botanical art schools of, by and for the people. While the colonial roots may have been exploitative, the shoots have been transformative, hurling themselves skyward and into the future. As they blossom and flourish in Himalayan soil, one can only hope that word spreads in rapid, reticulate fashion, making the mountains come alive with botanical art for generations to come.
The publication of this magazine has been made possible by generous support received from Eddie Dinshaw Foundation and The Himalaya Drug Company.
Caption: Leucosceptrum canum Smith, by Neera Joshi, 2016. Watercolour and gouache; 58 x 38 cm. Courtesy the artist.
Caption: TOP LEFT TO RIGHT 1. Field trip at the Kathmandu botanic garden, 2009. Courtesy Neera Joshi. 2. Anoushka HINHA. 3. Student at work in Studio Petals, 2010. Courtesy Neera Joshi.
BOTTOM LEFT TO RIGHT 4. Celestina Lepcha painting floral motifs on a vase. Courtesy HINHA. 5. Students painting a mural with natural colours. Courtesy HINHA. 6. Sumrita Gotamay colouring in flowers. Courtesy HINHA.
Caption: Bergenia ciliata (H.) Sternberg, by Neera Joshi, 2016. Watercolour and gouache; 58 x 38 cm. Courtesy the artist.
Caption: Phaius tankervilleae (L'Her.) Blume, by Celestina Lepcha, 2012. Watercolour and pen-and-ink on Ivory paper; 35 x 25 cm. Courtesy HINHA.
Caption: Cardiocrinum giganteum (Wall.) Makino, by Hemlata Pradhan, 2011. Watercolour and pen-and-ink on Fabriano paper; 69.5 x 53.4 cm. Courtesy the artist.
Caption: Pleione praecox (J.E. Smith) D. Don, by Hemlata Pradhan, 2003-04. Watercolour on Fabriano paper; 70.2 x 52.6 cm. Courtesy the artist.
Caption: Renanthera imschootiana Rolfe, by Hemlata Pradhan, 2002. Watercolour on Fabriano paper; 36 x 26.1 cm. Courtesy the artist.
Caption: Coix lacryma-jobi Linn., by Sumrita Gotamay, 2015. Watercolour on Cartridge paper; 19 x 13 cm. Courtesy HINHA.
Caption: Lilium nepalense D. Don, by Neera Joshi. Watercolour and gouache; 58 x 38 cm. Courtesy the artist.
Caption: Hedychium flavescens Roscoe, by Neera Joshi, 2012. Watercolour and gouache; 58 x 38 cm. Courtesy the artist.
Caption: Dendrobium densiflorum Lindley, by Neera Joshi, 2012. Watercolour and gouache; 58 x 38 cm. Courtesy the artist.
Caption: Local mushroom in habitat, by Celestina Lepcha, 2013. Field-sketch in pencil and watercolour in diary; 25 x 35 cm. Courtesy HINHA.
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.