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Rungiah and Govindoo - South Indian Botanical Drawings 1826-1853

9 April - 9 July 2006

Rungiah and Govindoo

Installation view: "Rungiah and Govindoo - South Indian Botanical Drawings 1826 - 1853", Inverleith House, 2006.  

‘The insufficiency of language alone to convey just ideas of the forms of natural objects, had led naturalists ... to have recourse to pictorial delineation to assist the mind through the medium of the senses' (Robert Wight, 1837).

Rungiah and Govindoo

This exhibition celebrated the previously unsung achievements of two South Indian artists who, between 1826 and 1853, worked for a botanically-minded Scottish surgeon. Unlike many of the Indian artists who undertook such work for British patrons, we at least know their names: Rungiah and Govindoo. Robert Wight, who commissioned the drawings, was highly appreciative of his artists' talents, scrupulously attributing each drawing when reproduced to in his monumental illustrated publications on the South Indian flora; Wight also named a handsome genus of orchid after Govindoo. Despite this almost nothing else is known of these artists: of Wight, by contrast, we know a very great deal.

Wight was following in a tradition of using South Indian artists to make detailed botanical drawings to supplement the copious dried herbarium specimens collected by himself and his Indian plant collectors. This tradition originated with William Roxburgh, another Edinburgh-trained surgeon-botanist, who went to Madras in 1776. Wight employed Rungiah between about 1826 and 1845, though whether he died or retired at the end of this period is not known. In 1845 Wight was recorded as employing two artists and it seems likely that this was the time of overlap when Rungiah trained Govindoo as his successor. Works from this period are indistinguishable, though Govindoo's style quickly diverged and became much bolder then Rungiah's. That both artists were Telugu speakers is shown by the annotations on many of the drawings - mostly plant or place names, though Govindoo signed his name on a handful. Recent evidence has come to light that Rungiah's family name was Raju. This was the name of a family of painters of the Kshatriya caste, caste of Tanjore. These painters came originally from the Telugu-speaking area that is now the state of Andhra Pradesh. It seems highly likely that Govindoo came from the same family or community.

Like all such paintings made by Indian artists for British patrons, the works show a fascinating hybridity - while meeting the botanical criteria required for taxonomic accuracy, indigenous traditions of picture making are revealed in the layout of the plants on this page.

Robert Wight

Wight was born near Saltoun, East Lothian in 1796 and educated in Edinburgh, where his father was a Writer to the Signet, firstly at the Royal High School, then at the University of Edinburgh. As part of his medical studies Wight attended classes at the Botanic Garden (then in Leith Walk) given by Professor Daniel Rutherford. He graduated MD in 1818 and became an Assistant Surgeon with the East India Company the following year, starting off in Madras. Wight's early days in India were spent as an army surgeon in the area of the Northen Circars, but he pursued botany as a hobby and in 1826 his talents and interests led to his appointment as Company Naturalist in Madras (following in the footsteps of Roxburgh and Patrick Russell, both Edinburgh trained surgeons-botanists). During the two years before the post was scrapped, Wight collected prolifically (not only plants), and fist employed Rungiah.

In 1831 Wight returned to Britain for a three year leave, bringing back two tons of herbarium specimens. Much of his time was devoted to working on these collections, in London, and Scotland - with Robert Graham in Edinburgh and William Hooker in Glasgow. It was at this point that Wight resumed contact with his friend of school and university days, George Walker-Arnott, then living the life of a gentleman-botanist on his estate of Arlary in Kinross-shire. Wight and Arnott collaborated in distributing Wight's plant specimens, which went as far afield as Boston and St Petersburg, and they wrote several important taxonomic publications.

Wight returned to India in 1834 where he remained a further 19 years. Most of this time he was employed as what would now be called an economic botanist for the Madras Governement, from 1842 superintending a project on the introduction of American cotton. However, he continued to collect herbarium specimens on an almost industrial scale, and it was during this period that Wight started to publish Rungiah's anf Govindoo's drawings on an extensive scale in Madras. Wight retired to Reading in 1853 but, despite being elected FRS, undertook no further taxonomic work before his death in 1872.

Rungiah and Govindoo

Installation view: "Rungiah and Govindoo - South Indian Botanical Drawings 1826 - 1853", Inverleith House, 2006.  

Rungiah and Govindoo

Installation view: "Rungiah and Govindoo - South Indian Botanical Drawings 1826 - 1853", Inverleith House, 2006.  

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