Indian artists revisited
5 November 2018
Researchers in Exeter and India have revealed that 17 Indian natural history paintings in RAMM’s collection are by three of the most renowned late 18th-century Indian painters – Sheikh Zain al-Din, Bhawani Das and Ram Das.
RAMM’s Indian natural history paintings
The artworks are part of a collection of 86 late 18th to early 19th century watercolours of Indian plants held by RAMM. The paintings depict plants used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine and are associated with the English East India Company. At this time the Company was beginning to control parts of the Indian subcontinent. Keen to exploit and export valuable natural commodities, the Company set out to record the flora of India and commissioned Indian artists to create detailed botanical illustrations.
Collaboration between RAMM, the University of Exeter and Kolkata’s majestic Victoria Memorial Hall has enabled experts to study the paintings. Dr Nandini Chatterjee examined the 17 signed works and discovered that previous translation from Bengali to Latin script (by persons unknown) was unhelpful. By tracing the names through various cultural frontiers she revealed the works were by a trio of celebrated artists from Patna. It is not clear who commissioned these works, but all three artists were at one point employed by Lady Mary Impey (1749-1818), wife of the Chief Justice of Bengal.
Dr Chatterjee and Dr Andrew Rudd (University of Exeter) and Dr Jayanta Sengupta (Victoria Memorial Hall) are helping RAMM uncover more of the work’s fascinating story. They will return to India later this month with RAMM’s Collections Officer Holly Morgenroth to continue their investigations and plan an international collaborative project inspired by RAMM’s Company School drawings and a similar collection of plant and animal paintings at the Victoria Memorial Hall.
View the paintings
The exquisite paintings in RAMM’s collection can be viewed online on RAMM’s Collections Explorer and Google Arts and Culture. Works by Sheikh Zain al-Din, Bhawani Das and Ram Das are also held by the Tate, Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York amongst others.
Help sharing the collections
Holly’s travel to India is funded by the ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant Scheme. A 2012/3 collections review funded by Arts Council England revealed the importance of the paintings. The paintings were conserved for display in the 2016 exhibition Flower Power: Botanical illustrations from India with a 2014 grant from the ACE PRISM Fund.
Left to right: Indian pellet shrub (Pavetta indica). Watercolour and gouache, c.1770-80 by Sheikh Zain al-Din; Kadam (Anthocephalis cadamba), Watercolour and gouache, c.1770-80 by Bhawani Das; Orchid tree (Bauhinia acuminata). Watercolour and gouache, c.1770-80 by Ram Das.