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Illustrating Plants at the Tanjore Court.

TANJORE'S ENCOUNTER WITH EUROPEAN NATURAL HISTORY AT THE TURN OF THE 19th century enriched the cultural and knowledge base that already existed at the Maratha court, but under the patronage of Raja Serfoji II (r. 1798-1832), far from simply mimicking existing practice, it resulted in the production of a new or hybrid knowledge; a knowledge that was relevant to the locality, and where the practice of natural history was articulated chiefly in the fields of medicine (including veterinary and animal management practices) and agriculture. (1) The raja developed a medicinal garden adjoining the Arogyasala (his medical establishment) and commissioned his artists to paint portraits of medicinal and other useful plants. To him, the practice of medicine was not merely an intellectual engagement, but involved such activities as collection of medicinal plants, their propagation in gardens, preparation of herbaria and botanical illustration besides the formulation of medicines, which were usually amalgams of plant extracts and minerals. Viscount Valentia, the British aristocrat-traveller, in his account of a visit to the Tanjore court in 1804, described Serfoji's drawing-room, where he saw a collection of plant paintings and a hortus siccus (a collection of dried specimens), as "furnished with English chairs and tables; and on the latter were paper, colours and every implement of drawing, another amusement of which he is very fond". (2) This essay will historically situate the albums of botanical art that were displayed before eminent visitors to the palace, while also bringing to light a hitherto unknown illustrated botanical/agricultural manuscript, pre-dating the albums, from the Tanjore regent Amar Sing's reign (r. 1787-98), titled "Tanjour Grains" held by the Natural History Museum (NHM), London.

The year 1792 was particularly significant for art in Madras; late that year, the British artists William and Thomas Daniell and Robert Home exhibited some of their work at Fort St George for the first time. That same year, the Daniells would travel to Tanjore, and paint the Brihadisvara Temple and other architectural views. We do not know if the young adopted prince Serfoji had the opportunity to meet the visiting artists, but it is unlikely given the oppressive situation he was in thanks to the regent Amar Sing. In early 1793, Serfoji was forced to move out of Tanjore and reside in Madras for protection and education. He might have just missed seeing the Daniell paintings at the Fort, but their aquatints had already reached the Madras shops. During his three-year stint in Madras, which ended in early 1796, many of the Daniell prints, including "Six original paintings of wild animals...consisting of Tygers, Bears, Buffaloes etc" were put up for sale. Public subscriptions had also been invited for the publication of their "Oriental Scenery ... twenty-four views in Hindostan from the drawings of Mr Thomas Daniell", engraved by the artist himself. (3) Serfoji's European friends often borrowed his copy of Oriental Scenery for their own entertainment. (4) Amongst the other sets of prints in circulation in south India at the turn of the 19th century was artist Captain Charles Gold's Oriental Drawings described by the Madras Courier as "consisting of Extraordinary & Interesting Figures of many of the Natives of the Coromandel Coast & adjacent countries ... and Interspersed with Landscape Views, As Drawn from Life". (5) To ensure his market, Charles Gold claimed that his Oriental Drawings were "coloured ... in an easy Natural Stile ... avoiding stiffness and finery of Moochy Pictures". (6)

It is believed that the Telugu-speaking moochy artists migrated to Tanjore and established roots in the early 18th century, attracted by the patronage offered by the royal court. They painted and sold miniatures to eager European travellers and colonial officials, and portraits of the royals were particularly popular. The Tanjore moochy-artists were much sought after by Europeans in India, a patronage that led to the production of a rich and distinct collection of paintings of a "hybrid" genre, referred to in general as "Company paintings".

The Molesworth Collection

In the late 18th century, the Company's surgeon-naturalists and the missionary-naturalists of Tranquebar frequently travelled across the rich and fertile lands of Tanjore and its neighbourhood, collecting and studying plants; Tanjore in fact continues to be the agricultural heartland of the state of Tamil Nadu today, famed particularly for its variety of paddy. Amongst the collections of the Botany Library of the NHM, London, there exists a pocket-sized manuscript, measuring only 15 cm in height, containing miniature watercolour portraits painted by a moochy artist, of 13 food-crops from the region, accompanied by a tabular list detailing their names in Tamil, sowing and reaping seasons, and their yield per unit of land cultivated. Amongst the paddy species listed in this manuscript are the" Wellakar", "Muttakar", "Kulloondeh", "Yerak Sumba", "Shermunnyen" and "Pishanum". And then there is the castor-plant, with its oil-rich seed, "Mootoocotteh" in Tamil (figure 1). The short description reads: "This is the Seed of the Ricinus Palma Christi, the Oil used for burning as well as in Medicine, the Plant triennial. The Crop profitable but it exhausts the Ground." (7)

The only clue as to the author of this undated record is the inscription of the initials, "R.M." found on the last folio of the manuscript. The present author has been able to trace it to Richard Molesworth (1737-99) of Dorset Court, Parliament Street, grandson of Robert 1st Viscount Molesworth of Ireland who enjoyed a close relationship with Joseph Banks, the great British patron of science with a vast collecting network in the East, including India. A gentleman of science, Molesworth was a Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries of London, and cultivated an abiding interest in the botany of the East. Molesworth's friends in India included the likes of James Anderson and William Roxburgh, Company surgeon-naturalists based in Madras at this time. (8) Roxburgh had replaced Patrick Russell as the Company Botanist in Madras in 1789 and within a year had almost 700 plant descriptions illustrated by native artists, some of which found place in his Plants of the Coast of the Coromandel (1795-1820). The first batch of his illustrations was sent to Banks in the very same year as the Molesworth manuscript. Whether Molesworth actually visited Tanjore is not known, but it is evident from the manuscript that he had sound knowledge of agriculture in Tanjore. We can only make reasonable conjectures here, but it is more likely that he acquired this information through either Roxburgh, with his links with the Tranquebar missionary Christopher Samuel John, or Anderson who knew Serfoji's guardian, the Tanjore missionary Christian Friedrich Schwartz, or perhaps even Benjamin Torin, Resident of Tanjore, who would later become the chief procurer of all things curious and enlightening for the young Raja Serfoji. (9) The illustrations painted by a moochy artist were sent to Molesworth in London, and then bound together with the list of the cultivated plants, to make the small volume that we see now.

In July 1790, Molesworth presented the painted manuscript to Banks, with a promise that dried specimens of the grains would soon follow on board the Pigot. (10) The collection of grains did eventually reach Banks but its fate remains unknown today. After Banks' death, the manuscript from Tanjore found its way to the British Museum, and later the NHM where it now sits, along with the other Banksian collections from the East, as an early example of the work of the Tanjore moochy, in the artistic genre of botanical illustration executed for a European patron.

We know from Molesworth's letter to Banks that he commissioned the "Tanjour Grains" in early 1790, which was during the regency of Amar Sing (11)--known to be a great patron of the arts. In the 1790s, for instance, Amar Sing invited Baron Thomas Joseph Reichel, an excellent illustrator of plants, to redesign a part of the palace where a wooden structure (after a European model) was incorporated for the ruler to make public appearances on festive occasions. (12) Understandably, the best among the moochy artists would have been employed at Amar Sing's court and it is quite likely that one of the most talented of these was hired to illustrate the plants in the Molesworth manuscript. The paintings are in a miniature format, in gouache, and painted red borders frame the folios; the plants have been rendered in a decorative rather than a naturalistic fashion. It would be at least another decade before moochy artists of Tanjore under the patronage of Serfoji II began to use watercolours to paint plant portraits in a naturalistic style.

Modernizing the Tanjore Moochy

The Thanjavur Sarasvati Mahal Library, attached to the palace, holds three albums of botanical illustrations (in total 91 paintings), of which one or two are usually put on public display at its museum. No doubt these were the ones the early 19th-century visitors to the palace, like Valentia and Robinson in 1804, had the opportunity to view. (13) It is believed that at least until 1965, there were 300 such plant paintings of royal folio size (20 inches or c. 50 cm in height), but what exists today is but one-third of that number. (14) These albums were part of a large collection of natural history drawings commissioned by the enlightened Serfoji as soon as he began his studies in earnest around c. 1802. Although there may have been more than one artist responsible for the paintings, the chief executor was, I would like to suggest, a moochy named Coopan Sithar.

The young Raja Serfoji was a keen student of drawing and painting. The missionaries of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, Christian Friedrich Schwartz and Wilhelm Gericke, played significant roles in moulding Serfoji's personality in his formative years, but there were also others like the Tranquebar missionaries--Christopher Samuel John, John Peter Rottler, Johann Gerhard Klein, Augustus Frederick Cammerer--and the Kohlhoffs (Daniel and John) of the Tanjore Mission who supported his quest for knowledge and modernity. To aid the raja's drawing lessons, in 1802, John Kohlhoff solicited the help of C.S. John at Tranquebar. John was sorry that his copy of the book Principles Instructing the Art of Drawing was "old and torn in pieces" by the orphans who learnt drawing under his instruction, but suggested that if Serfoji wished he could have "the Rudiments of Eyes, ears, fingers, feet & Hands etc" copied from whatever remained. (15) The raja was convinced that the "Rudiments" would be of great use to him in learning to draw perfectly. (16) Amongst the other books he used for art instruction were Pinnock and Maunder's A Catechism of Drawing & Architecture and its companion volume, A Catechism of Perspective; the books followed a question-answer format and contained recipes useful for those who painted in watercolours.

Later, the young raja also consulted George Hamilton's illustrated The Elements of Drawing, in its Various Branches for the Use of Students (1812) with 51 engravings showing human anatomy, landscapes and natural history illustrations. The book claimed to be a substitute for live instruction in schools and dealt with colouring, and in separate sections the painting of natural historical subjects such as butterflies, shells, fish, fruit, flowers, birds and animals. (17)

The raja persuaded his moochies to use the imported watercolours such as those sold by the colourists Reeves of London, and not just the water-based pigments prepared locally and applied in the opaque gouache style. As far as paper was concerned, reams of "Royal" (royal folio size) paper and marbled paper for painting reached Serfoji at regular intervals from England; the natural history illustrations including the botanical albums were executed on the royal folio size paper.

Some of the moochies were also trained in the naturalistic style by Tranquebar missionaries like C.S. John as per the raja's request. Besides the moochy artists, who were Hindus by caste, native Christians like Kiruba Samuthiram and Ayya Pullay were patronized by Serfoji, and they were trained by the Tranquebar missionaries to paint plants realistically. (18) A roll of Kiruba's drawings was sent to Serfoji by John in 1806 as a demonstration of his successful training under him. (19) Only two years earlier, John had expressed concern that the painter had not received his salary from the raja, for which reason he was unable to continue painting. Art materials such as Reeves watercolours were also in limited supply during these early times. The Tanjore missionary John Kohlhoff relayed John's concerns to Serfoji:
   He [Kiruba] has wrote also for some colours to his acquaintance but
   has got no answer, & is stopt in his painting for that reason, as
   He does not approve of those which His former painter had left with
   Him: and He adds that Real Reeves' Colour Boxes are hardly to be
   got at Madras. The Painter has but little performed till now,
   However He will do more by longer Exercise, & good Colours and as
   He seems to be a good Man we must have patience. (20)

In the last decades of the 18th century, artists in Europe had begun purchasing small-sized hard cakes of watercolour, invented by William Reeves in 1780. As Reeves & Woodyer, the business advertised itself as the "colourmakers" to the Honourable East India Company, and grew in status in the 1820s and 1830s. (21) Hope, Reynolds & Griffiths and Gibson, Inverarity, Stevens & Jack of Madras stocked Reeves, Woodyer and Ackerman colours, "a general assortment of drawing utensils", crayons, spare camel-hair pencils, paint oil, paints of different colours in small kegs, painting brushes, linseed oil and spirits of turpentine. (22) To improve the quality of paintings by the Indian artists under his employ, the Company's surgeon-naturalist William Roxburgh procured a copy of Tingry's Painters & Varnisher's Guide, a book that Serfoji also consulted as soon as it was published.

Serfoji commissioned illustrations of flora found in and around Tanjore as early as 1800, even as he began teaching himself to draw and paint. Almost all plants that grew in his gardens found a place in the illustrated albums (figures 2-5). Serfoji was engaged in the systematic collection and exchange of useful seeds and plants of all sorts through his collecting networks, which included colonial officials and missionaries. He was sent cinnamon plants from the plantations at Courtallum in Tinnevelly, teak trees from Travancore, as well as coconut saplings, all of which were planted in his gardens. Missionary C.S. John sent him exotic plants and even offered to design a botanical garden in Tanjore. (23) The Tanjore missionary Kohlhoff sent Serfoji "two Butterfly plants and two other curious plants called by Botanists the Hastingia", the Chinese Loquat, the "Gorka from Ceylon", reputed for its magical properties, a plant that produced the balm of Gilead (Populus candicans), the seeds of an invasive American creeper, "a Lair of the Olive Tree, as also another curious Flower plant, the Name of which is not known". Having heard that the Cuddalore plantains were of an eminent quality, Serfoji had had a few planted in his garden at the little fort; plantain varieties and saplings were frequently brought in from that place, which seems to have been a major centre for their cultivation. In 1819, in his introduction to the Plants of the Coast of Coromandel, Roxburgh describes a beautiful tree, Bignonia suberosa, which he states was brought to Madras from the "Rajah of Tanjore's garden; from thence one plant was procured for the Company's Botanic Gardens at Calcutta, about twelve years ago". (24)

The paintings of local fauna, including quadrupeds, fishes, reptiles and insects and architecture that Serfoji commissioned his moochy artists to execute, were despatched on a regular basis to the former Tanjore Resident Benjamin Torin residing at Harley Street, London. Torin had great words of appreciation for the talent of the moochy who painted them: "Your Moochy has been so careful and correct in his representations." By 1807, Torin had received more than a hundred paintings, which were then presented in Serfoji's name to the Court of Directors as "The Natural Products of Hindostan"; this unique collection of 117 coloured drawings with descriptive notes by the raja himself in English and Tamil is today part of the collections of the British Library, London. (25) The botanical albums were never sent to London, perhaps because they were required for use at the Arogyasala attached to the palace. In a letter to the Lutheran Mission in Halle 1802 (at the time the natural history paintings, including the botanical albums were being made), the Tranquebar missionary Christian Pohle referred to an ingenious artist of the Tanjore court under the reign of Raja Serfoji, who was an expert illustrator of plants, animals and insects. Charles Gold, who criticized the moochy style as being in general stiff and excessively decorative, still spoke in great appreciation of one moochy, the "celebrated Tanjore Moochy ... this ablest artist amongst the moochies ... famed throughout the country, not so much for the specimens of his own invention as for his great skill and ingenuity in imitating the finest miniatures from the European pencil, so as to deceive persons of good taste, if not the connoisseur." (26) These descriptions lead us to one moochy, called Coopan Sithar, hailed as the "celebrated Tanjore Moochy", and who died c. 1810. When in 1814, the Tanjore Resident William Blackburne wanted a portrait copied he approached Serfoji because "since the Death of the celebrated Tanjore Moochy, the only tolerable painters" who remained were under the raja's employ. (27) The chief job of Serfoji's moochy artists, Venkataperumal, Venkatanarayana, Gopalakrishna Naik, Chinnasawmy Naik and Coopaloo, was to make copies of the paintings of their late illustrious predecessor Coopan Sithar, to be given away to the raja's European friends as presents. In 1821 for instance, while on a pilgrimage to Benares, Serfoji sent the Marquis of Hastings a portrait of his (Hastings'), copied by Chinnasawmy Naik from an original painted by Coopan Sithar. (28)

Being one of the most talented of the moochy artists in Tanjore, Sithar would have been in the employ of Amar Sing before becoming the chief artist at Raja Serfoji's court. Could Sithar then have painted the illustrations in the "Tanjour Grains" manuscript of 1790? The painting styles of the Molesworth manuscript (1790) and the Tanjore botanical albums (c. 1802) are however remarkably different. The albums demonstrate how within a period of 10 years, Serfoji was able to influence his moochy artists to adopt a more "modern" hybrid style, removed from their traditional decorative and miniature style used in painting portraits, religious or ethnographic subjects for the European patron, and to instead tackle new subjects European in origin such as natural history, which demanded accurate observation. The project of modernizing the Tanjore moochy, exemplified by the botanical albums, might be read as yet another facet of the Tanjore Enlightenment shaped up by Raja Serfoji II through the globally situated cross-cultural exchanges initiated by him in the early 19th century.


All images except figure 1 are courtesy Thanjavur Sarasvati Mahal Library.


(1) For an extensive study that situates Tanjore at the turn of the 19th century as a centre of enlightenment, see Savithri Preetha Nair, Raja Serfoji II: Science, Medicine and Enlightenment in Tanjore, New Delhi: Routledge, 2012.

(2) George Annesley (Viscount Valentia), Voyages & Travels to India, Ceylon, the Red Sea, Abyssinia and Egypt in the Years 1802, 1803,1804,1805 and 1806, London, 1809, Vol. 1, pp. 358-63.

(3) Madras Courier, November 15, 1792, January 1793, March 25, 1795.

(4) Tamil Nadu State Archives (TNSA): Thanjavur District Records (TDR) 3524, March 27, 1817, p. 159.

(5) Madras Courier, February 18, 1800.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Natural History Museum, London: mss Banks Coll M (Manuscript) "List of the Different Sorts of Grain ... cultivated in the Tanjore Country".

(8) British Library, London (BL): Add Ms. 33,979, ff. 290-91, W. Roxburgh to J. Banks; the letter refers to their mutual friend Molesworth.

(9) For more details on their Tanjore connection, see Nair, Raja Serfoji II, Introduction, pp. XXIX-XXX.

(10) Letter from R. Molesworth to J. Banks, July 8, 1790, JBK/1/5 ff. 15, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

(11) Ibid.

(12) BL, India Office Records: p/241/52, January 1795. p. 270.

(13) For a list of plants illustrated in the albums see James J. White, "Three Botanical Albums in the Thanjavur Maharaja Serfoji's Saraswati Mahal Library in India", Huntia, 9(2), 1996, pp. 161-63.

(14) V. Narayanaswami (comp.), A Bibliography oflndology, Vol. 2: Indian Botany, Part II: K-Z, Calcutta: National Library, 1965, Serial no. 3815; cited in White, "Three Botanical Albums", p. 161.

(15) TNSA: TDR 3473-74, August 30, 1802, pp. 663-64.

(16) Ibid., p. 667.

(17) Serfoji was also an avid reader of Ackerman's Repository of Arts] elegant prints from this periodical published from 1809 to 1829 were fashionable and in circulation in India, consisting of the "latest European and Indian richly coloured views and scenery". Serfoji placed orders for various kinds of drawing equipment, including lenses, microscopes, a camera obscura and a pantograph about this time. A pantograph made possible copying plans, maps and other drawings on the same, enlarged or reduced scale.

(18) Archiv der Franckeschen Stiftungen zu Halle: Tagebuch von Christian Pohle, AFST/M2E 18: 21, 01.01.1802-31.12.1802/NHB, 5 Bd, 60 St., p. 1051. As a matter of fact, Ayya Pullay was not only a clever painter but also a fine translator of Tamil into English, TNSA: TDR 3479, April 25, 1804, pp. 543-44.

(19) TNSA: TDR 3487A, February 18, 1806, p. 5.

(20) TNSA: TDR 3481, September 15, 1804.

(21) From the 1820s, Middleton of London began exporting to India "Cobalt blue, yellow oker, Indian red or cologne earth,... palettes, marble slabs, camel hair pencils, fitch pencils, pencil sticks, poppy oil drying tools,...copal, varnish, Verdigrease, and lamp black". Durable velvet colours by Thwaites were also to be had at the Madras market.

(22) As early as 1803, the Madras Courier advertised the private sale by Branson, Jones & Reddy of "a colour box for botanical painting, very complete--a plateau for a Dinner Table, mounted with Vellum for Painting, and a Ladies Work Table of the same description", indicating the demand for such things in the cultured circles of south Indian society at the turn of the 19th century.

(23) Unfortunately we do not know anything about the botanic garden, or even if anything of that description was actually executed, let alone in the manner that John had conceived of it.

(24) W. Roxburgh, Plants of the Coast of Coromandel, London: W. Bulmer & Co., 1819, Vol. 3, p. 11 (plate 214).

(25) TNSA: TDR 3492, letter dated Harley Street, September 15, 1807, pp. 87-91. About 117 beautiful drawings of animals, including several from his menagerie, are among the India Office Collections. See BL, IOR: NHD7/1001-1116.

(26) C. Gold, Oriental Drawings, London: Bunney & Co., 1806, plate 40.

(27) TNSA: TDR 3511, June 26, 1814, p. 171. Moochies who made the copies were paid 20 star pagodas (TNSA: TDR 3511, October 1, 1814, p. 243).

(28) TNSA: TDR 4429B, April 8, 1821, p. 200.

Caption: 1. Ricinus communis ("Mootoocotteh"), from the "Tanjour Grains" album. [C] Library and Archives, Natural History Museum, London.


Caption: 2. Mimusops elengi ("Mahalamaram") with details of the "fragrant flower, fruit and seed", from the Tanjore botanical albums, c. 1802.

Caption: 3. Gloriosa superba ("Karthigaikkizhangu" or "Kalappaikkizhangu"), from the Tanjore botanical albums, c. 1802. The decorative moochy style is clearly evident in this beautiful portrait arranged in a circular format to cover the entire sheet, with the root occupying the central position, instead of the striking flower.

Caption: 4. Bauhinia purpurea ("Maramaundaray") with a detail of the pistil and stamens, from the Tanjore botanical albums, c. 1802.

Caption: 5. Plantain flower ("Vazhaipoo"), from the Tanjore botanical albums, c. 1802. Serfoji had the very special Cuddalore plantains planted in his garden at the little fort.

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Author:Nair, Savithri Preetha
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Dec 1, 2018
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