A Bird’s-Eye View of the Raj

Science and whimsy mix in Delhi Art Gallery’s exhibition of Company paintings.

This story was originally published in India Today.

For Major-General Thomas Hardwicke, it wasn’t enough to employ an artist to paint the birds he came across in India. The naturalist and British East India Company officer also ‘employed a shikari to shoot and preserve specimens’ for the ‘largest and most notable’ collection of his time—as noted in an essay that accompanies Birds of India, Delhi Art Gallery’s current exhibition. Such collection practices were widespread and fundamental to the development of taxonomy, but they do hint at the violence that so often underpins the accumulation of scientific knowledge.

DAG’s 2019 show Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, explored how European conventions shaped pre-existing Indian styles as the centre of patronage shifted away from the Mughal court to the Company’s strongholds in Calcutta, Lucknow and Patna in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The accumulation of information about the landscape, flora and fauna of the ‘East’ complemented the general production of knowledge about its societies and cultures. The Orientalist project was driven as much by the values of the European ‘Enlightenment’ and its emphasis on empirical science, as it was yoked to the growing political influence and military might of the Company. By magnifying one genre, Birds highlights how European systems of scientific classification were—often messily—laid over local knowledge, and sometimes subverted by it.

Most of the 99 watercolour paintings, from different spheres of Company influence, are from a single album compiled between 1800-1804. The rest are dated slightly later, up to circa 1835. The paintings, most by unknown Indian artists, are stunning—each bird layered with detail, each feather built up from rachis and barbs. Some are strikingly colourful, for example, the Himalayan Monal or ‘Impeyan Pheasant’, named for a Calcutta patron with a famous menagerie. But even the ‘Little Brown Jobs’ are rendered in a breath-taking range of monochromatic hues.

A context-setting essay by Aditi Mazumdar supplements curator Giles Tillotson’s poetically-inclined introduction. The inclusion of original inscriptions, often in Urdu, adds an important dimension. For example, the portrait of a scarlet minivet is inscribed with ‘saath sanjhkiya ambi’—‘seven dusk-hued friends with mango-shaped bellies’, which as the catalogue notes, while ‘extraordinarily poetic is not the usual local name for this species, which is pahari bulalchashm.’ Such glimpses into the inherent slipperiness in the collaborative labelling of the natural world are invaluable—one wishes there was more information on the contours of Indian naming, and how it may have informed Linnaean classification.

Tillotson remarks that artists ‘have sometimes attended to minute distinctive particularities of form and plumage, while at other times they have taken artistic liberties… Naming the birds has been a process of weighing all of the evidence on the page against modern scientific descriptions.’ Mazumdar adds, ‘A more systematic approach to Indian ornithology began only in the mid-19th century’, by which time Company painting had begun to give way to photography. Birds captures an earlier effort to pin and name the natural world, as well as a few gloriously unidentifiable flights of fancy.

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