Painting Nature: the art of Thakur Ganga Singh

Thakur Ganga Singh (1895-1970) was one of the best plant-artists of the world. He belonged to the tiny village of Kakhola in Tehri-Garhwal. In 1911, he joined the Forest Research Institute, Dehradun and worked here for 30 years as their official artist! During this time, he created some of the most beautiful watercolour paintings of flowering Indian trees.

In appreciation of his work, the scholar M.S Randhawa wrote:

Ganga Singh’s paintings of flowering branches of beautiful trees of India faithfully depict the shape and colour of flowers, leaves and branches. For their accuracy and freshness of colour, his paintings stand unrivalled.

MS Randhawa, Flowering Trees in India

Here’s a selection of paintings by Ganga Singh (Dehradun)

The fascination with plant-art was probably at it’s height during the 17th and 18th century – the Dara Shikoh album is known for its flower-paintings. Whether in manuscripts, textiles or architecture, flowers appeared frequently in Indian art of the time. Under European patronage, art in the subcontinent underwent considerable change. British officials, keen to study aspects of Indian life were especially interested in botanical studies and commissioned several artworks on the subject. However, with the advent of photography, artistic representations of flora and fauna became rare. It is at this time that Ganga Singh created the paintings – elegant and botanically accurate.

Ganga Singh’s art won him acclaim in India and abroad. His illustrations appeared frequently in journals of the Institute and publications worldwide, making Ganga Singh a well-known name. In 1944, in recognition of his contributions to the field of Botany, the then-Viceroy of India conferred upon him the title of ‘Rai Sahib’.

After his retirement from the Forest Research Institute, Ganga Singh was engaged by the Maharajah of Patiala, Yadhavindra Singh (also a keen botanist) to reproduce his collected flora in watercolour drawings. The Maharaja had meant to write a book on the subject. Ganga Singh became a permanent member of His Highness’ staff and painted over four hundred watercolours over a period of twenty years.

Here is some art from Ganga Singh’s time in Patiala:

If you find your interest in Trees and Nature piquing, then here’s a citizen-science project you might want to participate in. The folks at Season Watch also used Ganga Singh’s fantastic line drawings to create this simple guide to Trees. With this guide, you can find some interesting stories about the Trees that grow in your neighbourhood!

Note: the above guide is based on ‘Forty Common Indian Trees’ by R.N Parker featuring Ganga Singh’s illustrations.

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