Quite a fine imprint
The history of ornithological illustrations of Indian birds in lithographs is unique because of more than one reason, says Russian wildlife artist Tatiana Petrova.
Anthropomorphic understanding of animals is quite flawed, says Tatiana Petrova. So, she tries to comprehend them through the way she knows best – art. Tatiana is a printmaker who renders the beautiful world of birds and animals through her prints. Her appreciation of wildlife isn’t restricted to the country she belongs to. She was an artist at the Leningrad Zoo in Russia but for her MFA in graphic art, she came to India to pursue it at Santiniketan.
As the past of bird illustrations in India unravelled during her dissertation on the history of ornithological illustrations of Indian birds in lithographs, Tatiana’s appreciation of avian and animal life extended to this part of the world too.
“I think we don’t see them as they are. We project into them the emotions, we feel. I try to portray them as they are. I draw animals to express my love for animals and to tell people about them,” says the wildlife artist, who was recently invited by the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru, to speak on the artistic and scientific renderings of birds both from India and elsewhere, as part of World Environment Day celebrations.
In Russia, she grew up loving animals. So, she chose disciplines – zoology, biology – to study which would supplement her love for them with adequate knowledge. She was also studying printmaking from the State Academy of Fine Arts, simultaneously. But her life changed with a study grant by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations that brought her to the famed Santiniketan. “I thought I had landed on the Moon,” says the artist, who also showed a few samples of her prints alongside her talk.
She affords her art all the liberty she was introduced to at Santiniketan. And that’s how her lithos, etching and woodcuts end up as quite unique. Her prints depicting animals and birds in urban locations resemble a brush, crayon and watercolour drawing.
The artist reveals her research shows the path Indian bird illustrations traversed was different from anywhere else. “Ornithologists who came to India interested in its bird fauna would collect the works done by local Indian artists. In the 18th and 19th centuries, governors of Bengal, Nepal and the likes were collecting these works which were essentially done in the East India Company style. These collections were sent to Europe where scientists were studying the subject,” says Tatiana.
While Western artists and scientists were using Indian artists’ works for their publications and research, in the other parts of the world, there were no local artists. “It was only in India and certain parts of China that the art of drawing birds was developed,” she says. A lot of these collections now form significant part of museum collections abroad, notably British Museum and American Library, Tatiana tells us.
Colonel Hodgson hired a lot of Nepali artists and trained them in the style he desired for the illustrations. John Gould was a British artist working for the British Museum who became famous because of his black and white lithos but interestingly, he never came to India. His book “A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains” published in 1825 became immensely popular. “He got a collection of Indian bird drawings and that’s how the book came up.” Making sense of the popularity of lithographs in the field, Tatiana says, “Lithography flourished in this field because litho prints allowed any kind of drawing to be printed. Zoological illustrations, on the other hand, was under evaluation.”
Sadly, very few names of local Indian artists, whose works now sit pretty in top-most institutions in the world, remain in circulation. “Because they didn’t sign their work. But at the end of 18th Century Lady Marie Impey, wife of an East India Company judge, hired three artists – Bhavani Das, Ram Das and Zainul Sheikhuddin, who became very well-known. All of them were from Patna.” Life-size drawings of stork, cranes and large birds in watercolours were what the trio were primarily engaged with. Finely detailed and realistic were the hallmarks of Indian artists. “Guru Dayal was also working for a traveller whose works are in a collection. Then there was T. Jerdon, a scientist in Madras who hired an artist called Krishnarajoo.”