Plant Study and Botanical Art

Botanical art as a source of accurate information about plants has its origins in ancient books known as herbals that predated the invention of writing. These texts contained traditional herbal knowledge and were often illustrated to aid plant identification. During the European colonial expansion and with the establishment of the East India Company in 1600, conventional definitions of botanical art practice were articulated, further leading to its institutionalisation as a formal academic discipline. The urgency to document different plant species grew increasingly during colonial times, with 1740 to 1840 considered the period of the golden age of botanical art during which scientific botany developed. The emphasis on finding new plant species led to a corresponding need for artists and botanists to work together to produce scientifically correct plant illustrations (Rix 2012; Saunders 1995).

Although scientific representation is considered the field’s chief defining feature, two distinct strands of study have emerged – botanical art and botanical illustration. Botanical art focuses on aesthetics for creating realistic plant portrayals, not requiring anatomic accuracy from scientific perspectives. On the other hand, the focus of botanical illustration is to record plant species or plant parts, or to illustrate texts through scientifically accurate renderings (Educators Guide to Botanical Illustration 2009; Rix 2012). In cases where there is no differentiation between the two strands, botanical scientific illustration comes under the larger ambit of botanical art and is its defining component. However, the study of plant anatomy and structure resulting in the realistic portrayal of plants has been critical to both botanical art and botanical illustration.

Thus, if rangoli and kolam had to be included as resources for the botanical study of plants, what would be the contribution of such kinds of cultural art practices with plants that do not emphasize accuracy in plant portrayals? The following page discusses how a critical aspect of botanical art practice, that is, engagement with plant structure and anatomy, was not the focus of my pedagogy, but through it I was able to comprehend what a broader conception of studying plants through botanical art could entail. A series of pedagogic experiences are presented that include artistic collaborations and an analysis of images from my personal archive. The artistic collaborations draw upon aesthetic, symbolic, and material properties of floor art to reveal various perspectives through which floor art practices can be approached. The archival images introduce rangoli and kolam through lenses that uncover various media, materials, and modern adaptations of this traditional ritual. All serve as a basis for exploring new methods and possibilities with floor art that engage with botanical perspectives. 


Walking as an Investigative Practice

During research, I use walking as a method with the specific intention of geographically enquiring into spaces. In such kinds of field enquiries undertaken for specific research intentions, photography is often used as a visual research method to document immediate information observed by researchers (Gorman and Clayton 2005; Hartel and Thomson 2011). In the context of field experiences within the investigative processes of visual ethnography, Pink (2013) notes that an intention to represent particular objects and meanings within specific contexts is often the guiding factor for an ethnographer’s images. Whether classified as fieldwork photographs or as images taken during activities of work, holiday, or leisure, photographic activity can occur during several kinds of experiences. The photographs’ significance lies in producing visual meanings and in generating ethnographic knowledge. My photography is driven by the impulse to record a visual encounter and capture it, be it a street floor, a truck passing by, a trip to the market, a morning walk, a holiday in another city. I thus use images as documents. They become starting points for investigation when I reflect on a collection of photographs and note patterns within them.


Gathering Visual Data

Another trajectory along which I work involves documenting images of street art and design artefacts that contributes to a personal archive of photos, gathered over a decade. This aspect of my pedagogic practice results in a systematic investigation of concepts that are drawn from these images in order to create new learning experiences. Thus, research into rangoli as an instance of street art and design has in turn been both my process and the outcome of my inquiries. I took rangoli images mostly while walking in and around the city of Bangalore, sometimes ambling in familiar territory, and other times turning into an unknown street corner. The routes by which I collected these photographs were varied.


Research through Pedagogy

Practice-based artistic research is conducted in and through an artistic practice, embedding itself in both artistic and academic contexts, and concerned with the enactment and embodiment of content within aesthetic experiences, creative practices, and artistic products. The research aims lie in conveying and communicating this content (Hannula et al. 2014; Borgdorff 2011). In my case, creating a pedagogic form is both my artistic and my research practice – be it through the format of a collaboration, an exhibition, an artefact, an archive of photos to share with students, or the teaching experience. 

My pedagogic projects could be described as practice-based enquiries, where research occurs through making, and ‘in and through the acts of creating and performing’ (Borgdorff 2011: 46). The chapter collaboration with Rosenthal (Sachdev and Rosenthal 2019), discussed earlier, was an example where we considered botanical aspects of rice in the context of its use in kolam. I proposed through written text that alternate aesthetic engagements with plants in India rooted in myth and imagination need to be included as part of botanical art pedagogy. Rosenthal then created and juxtaposed two drawings in support of the text: a kolam drawing digitally created using the stippling technique, and an anatomically accurate drawing of the rice plant. This image is shown in the introduction. As a reference, she drew upon the photograph on the left, from my archive. It was in deciding exactly which specific rice variety to illustrate that we researched botanical information on the rice plant. Rosenthal finally decided on the IR8 rice variety even though there were others used in kolam – my interviews with local mill owners in the neighbourhood revealed IR8 to be popular with customers. Rosenthal’s research on IR8 also revealed to her its significance from the perspective of India’s Green Revolution, of particular interest to her as an eco-artist. Hence, she was more invested in researching this variety.

Thus, be it by chancing upon plant motifs while walking, by photographing the streets where I walked to learn more about local practices of floor art, or by teaching about these practices and collaborating over them with colleagues, I uncovered pedagogic possibilities for plant study. Between 2010 and 2019, while designing and participating in such forms of investigative pedagogic practice, rangoli became starting points for explorations during which the use of either media or botanical motifs was foregrounded.