History & Culture

Botanical Survey of India’s collection of rare paintings, dyes, fabrics and type specimens to go public

Botanical painting of Sapria himalayana by Lutchman Singh 1842   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In the 1840s, when British botanist William Griffith came across the rare holoparasitic flowering plant Sapria himalayana in Arunachal Pradesh, there were not enough ways to document it. A botanical portrait of the root parasite plant with bright red flowers and sulphur yellow dots was made as early as in 1842 hundreds of miles away, near Kolkata, by a painter named Lutchman Singh.

Botanical painting was crucial to discovery of numerous other such plants, including the Eulophia nuda, an orchid painted by G.C. Dass in May 1862 at the same historic location, the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden. Thousands of such botanical paintings, unique and almost two centuries old, are rare and valuable not only because of the artistic talent of their Indian painters but also because they highlight the country’s plant diversity. The Central National Herbarium of the Botanical Survey of India (BSI) has the biggest ever collection of 3,280 large botanical paintings by about 20 painters, whose names appear on the paintings but not much else is known of them.

Made prior to these works by Lutchman Singh, Gopal Dass and others were the 2,532 Roxburgh drawings, which don’t name their painters. The paper for the Roxburgh drawings was imported from London, and painters were paid ₹3 for each work. Most of the Roxburgh artists are believed to be painters of miniatures from the Mughal courts. Scottish botanist and physician, William Roxburgh (1751-1815), is also known as the father of the Indian botany for his contribution to plant taxonomy in India. Earlier this month, the Botanical Survey of India digitised the entire collection of Roxburgh drawings held by it. They will be available at https://archive.bsi.gov.in.

A.A. Mao, Director, Botanical Survey of India, said that the only other place where the Roxburgh paintings can be viewed are 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 digitisation,” he added.

Apart from botanical paintings, the digital archive also displays rare natural dyes, fabrics and type specimens (the first collection that’s used for describing a plant). Each one of these rare holdings has its own story. Thomas Wardle, a Scottish businessman, whose business in silk dyes wasn’t doing well, visited the industrial section of the Indian Museum and, in one year, came up with about 3,500 samples of dye patterns extracted from 64 Indian plants. The 15 volumes of Wardle’s Specimen of Fabrics Dyed with Indian Dyes, published in 1886 and preserved with the BSI, has also been digitised.

Manas Bhaumik, head of Indian Museum’s Industrial Section, which has been a part of the BSI since 1911, said that the dyes were made with a combination of natural extracts from different plants by mixing them in a variety of combinations. Among them are plants such as the Rubia cordifolia (which has the common name of Indian madder) with roots that give a bright red colour, and the Bixa orellana, called the lipstick plant for the beautiful colour it yields. Seeds, roots, leaves and extracts of several plants that were used for making dyes are still preserved at the Industrial Section of the Indian Museum.

Along with the natural dyes, there are 18 volumes of textile designs containing about 1,700 samples, starting with turbans and “garment pieces” for men and women, including the sari, dhoti and lungi, which is available with the BSI. 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, fibre, 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 the then British India.

“In the post COVID-19 pandemic scenario, this online database will be of immense help to the scientific fraternity working in plant taxonomy and other applied fields,” said S.S. Dash, Scientist and in-charge of the BSI’s Technical Section.

The recently digitised 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.

Scientists of the BSI said that process of making the rare holdings available to the public through digitisation took almost a decade. “This is undoubtedly the biggest ever exercise of bringing out the country’s rare botanical documents and holdings, and putting them in the public domain,” Dr. Mao said.

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Printable version | Oct 18, 2021 5:22:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/bsis-collection-of-rare-paintings-dyes-fabrics-and-type-specimens-to-go-public/article36403450.ece

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