Lost Archives: Ootacamund Flowers

 “Without the gift of flowers and the infinite diversity of their fruits, man and bird, if they had continued to exist at all, would be today unrecognizable. The weight of a petal has changed the face of the world and made it ours”
Loren Eiseley, How Flowers Changed the World

Open your doors and look abroad
From your blossoming garden gather
fragrant memories of the vanished
flowers and plants of an hundred years before.     
Rabindranath Tagore, The Gardener


Between those two quotes lies a tale. And a memory. And an archive. As always, Loren Eiseley nails it. Flowers do change the face of the world. But equally, as Tagore reminds us, the weight of a vanished petal from a hundred years ago – whether in a forgotten garden or a missing archive – hangs heavy on the world and makes it less ours. Less diverse, less indescribably beautiful. Lost flowers damage us all. But so do century-old floral archives that go AWOL. Consider this …

I’m in the Nilgiris, in Ootacamund — the queen of hill stations — or, as its now officially known, Udhagamandalam. Despite the garbage, the dwindling shola forests (dwarf evergreens), the invasive eucalyptus, and the failed monsoon this year, the hills are spectacularly beautiful. But I’m not looking for the contemporary 21st century version of these places. My sights are set a few centuries prior. I’m focused on the archival rearview mirror.

So, scratch that beginning, and let me start again. Rewinding … I’m in the Neil-gherries! in Ooty! For that is the way the Blue Mountains and the hill station were spelt – and seen – by the first British residents in the early 19th century. And that is the world I’m chasing: the world of botanical art produced by these settlers as they documented and depicted the Neilgherries as both strange as well as intimately familiar. Botanically speaking, that is. Strange in that the foreign flora included exotic native plants unique to its slopes,  chief among them being the blue wildflower shrub Kurinji, Strobilanthes kunthiana, which blooms only every 12 years and gives the NilGiris, the Blue Mountains, their name. Familiar in that the vegetation and landscape of these open grass-covered hills also reminded these homesick Britons of Blighty! Whether the comparisons made were with rolling Sussex downs or Scottish highlands or even – for those who hated the Neilgherries’ rainy season – with Lusitanian gloom!  The cool, temperate hill climate was pronounced ideal for British constitutions. And so the hills became further domesticated even as they were colonized. By the late 19th century, the Neilgherries had become – sometimes even more than was possible in the narrower, rockier, steeper Himalayan hill stations – idyllic little pockets of England-in-India providing much needed green respite from the burning alluvial plains and the hot Deccan plateau.

As to the (mostly Tamil) hill town names, these new residents weren’t called the “abbreviating Saxons” for nothing!  Ooty was the shortened version presumably when their tongues couldn’t wrap easily around the impossibly long (to their ears) Othakal-mund, the original Toda name, and Ooty it remained. And Ooty was where they flocked in droves after John Sullivan, Collector of Coimbatore, discovered the hill station in 1819  following his scouts’ glowing reports while surveying the mountains. Sullivan settled in to Ooty a year later, and others soon followed. The population doubled, then tripled over the century and those who came, stayed. And summered. By 1870, the annual summer exodus regularly included the Madras and Bombay Presidencies and their accompanying bureaucracies, all of whom escaped en masse to the hills – or as Gandhi had mocked, to govern from the 500th floor!

And those who stayed and summered in Ooty, gardened – especially once they discovered the Neilgherries could grow everything their floral and vegetal nostalgia desired: strawberries, mulberries, and all manner of temperate zone fruit; primroses, asters, hollyhocks, mignonettes, laburnums, geraniums, a profusion of roses. And the vegetables – string beans, tomatoes, potatoes, artichokes,lettuce, radishes, turnips  – as well as what the Company (and later the Crown) called products of ‘economic botany’: tea, coffee, cinchona plantations. In the 1840s, Robert Wight, the director of the Madras botanic gardens, was sent to Ooty by the Madras government to study crops appropriate to the temperate climate of the Neilgherries – presumably to explore large scale cultivation for the East India Company.

And In 1848, the new public Ooty botanical gardens were formally laid out on the lower slopes of the Doddabetta peak by its architect, John Mcivor (the man who successfully brought cinchona to Ooty), with the help of a gardener from London’s Kew Gardens. Today, it is known as the Government Botanical Garden, one of Ooty’s most visited attractions and one of the oldest surviving botanic gardens from colonial India. And its peculiar patchwork horticultural history can be pieced together from some of the existing structures on its vast grounds — the glass Fern House established in 1895, which bears Mcivor’s name; the well laid out plant beds and partierres in the Italian Garden dug by PoWs from WWI; the Lower Garden, which was originally the Marquis of Tweedale’s vegetable garden for Ooty’s early British residents. And most poignantly of all – the three surviving Toda huts (dogles) at the very top of the hill that serve as tragic reminders, like some frozen ethnographic diorama, of the tribal groups to whom this land once belonged, and from whom Sullivan apparently bought it for a song.

Its this late 19th and early 20th century botanical world of the Neilgherries and the Pulney hills that I am in search of. For I am on a botanical art quest; an archival quest. As part of my India Foundation for the Arts-supported project to document botanical art across colonial and East India Company gardens, I’m hot on the trail of an unpublished collection of botanical paintings from the early 20th century called the Bourne album, which was produced at (or around) the Ooty botanical gardens. And by all accounts is still there.  Titled Ootacamund Flowers, the Bourne album was commissioned between 1910-15 by Lady Emily Tree Bourne, wife of Dr. Alfred Gibbs Bourne, then government Botanist in Madras – and no mean botanist and artist herself. Apart from Lady Bourne’s own illustrations, the album also included contributions by a network of amateur artists and botanists, all European women, who spent their summers in Ooty, Kodi and Kotagiri. Some of the Bourne drawings found their way into print through the definitive floral survey of the region, P.F. Fyson’s Flora of the Nilgiris and Pulney Hills (first published in 1921 with a second edition in 1932). And around this time, Lady Bourne also made her way to Kew Gardens to personally deposit the Bourne herbarium in London. But all that comes later. Back to the paintings that make this unpublished album so valuable.

Unpublished! The very word gives me goosebumps. No duplicates, no copies, no printed editions or reproductions, this is it, the only one of its kind. So, what do we know about this volume of original, unique, and yes, unpublished paintings? That there were approximately 225 paintings, drawn and painted by a group of approximately 30 European women, all amateur naturalists and artists, bound into a volume and presented to the Madras government in 1917. That they were small detailed watercolors, of consistently high quality per the botanical art convention of the day, painted on cream-colored card and stuck into a brown album. That they included most of the indigenous flowers of the Neilgherries (index). Some have suggested that these paintings could be considered examples of what art historians call the Company School (or kampani kalam) style of Indian art — a hybrid Indo-European art style that arose in the 18th and 19th centuries when East India Company naturalists and administrators commissioned botanical or ethnographic paintings from native Indian artists trained in miniature painting or textile art traditions. With Ootacamund Flowers, however, I’m not so sure Company School fits. While the Bourne botanical paintings certainly derive and are probably inspired by kampani kalam, the album comes along too late to be anything but late, very late, Company School.  Besides, the Bourne paintings are all done by European, not Indian, artists. If the album has an art genealogy at all, it may have more in common with the line of amateur botanical paintings by intrepid female travelers to India such as Marianne North and Marianne Cookson. Or going further back, with botanical art collections commissioned by the wives of British administrators since the 18th century – for example, Lady Impey’s extraordinary collection of 300 paintings by indigenous artists in Calcutta, and the equally solid South Indian collections of botanical art put together by Lady Canning (19 volumes!) and then Lady Stanley in the early 20th century.

But enough about genealogies; onward to the quest … I have come to Ooty armed with all this information and with four references by scholars all of whom indicate exactly when they last saw the Bourne album/Ootacamund Flowers. In personal communication, Henry Noltie (curator extraordinaire of Indian botanical art, and author of marvelous books on Hugh Cleghorn and Robert Wight)  tells me he’d seen the volume in 2002 and also reminds me that it is not in the Nilgiri Library but rather, in the botanical garden’s main office, right near the entrance, in front of the floral map and behind the strange topiary! Eugenia Herbert’s reference to the Ooty album is in her delightful book, Flora’s Empire, published in 2011. K.M.Matthew, the pioneering botanist at St Joseph’s College, Tiruchirapalli wrote in his informative Huntia article that the Bourne album was in the Ooty office in 2000. As did art historian James White in his survey of botanical art collections in India, written before his untimely passing.

In addition, I have helping me a small group of botanists, plant lovers, and Nilgiri hill residents who have been extraordinarily generous with their time and suggestions. Susan John, who my aunt (Jyothi Rao) introduced me to last summer in Coonoor, offers me a sympathetic ear, all manner of phone help, a delicious high tea, and very kindly introduces me to Suresh Baburaj. Dr. Baburaj, a Renaissance type botanist-scientist with wide-ranging interests in art and literature and now head of AYUSH center, proves to be a fount of botanical wisdom and resources, and he in turn tells me I should get in touch with Dr. V. RamSunder, (retired) deputy director of horticulture at the Ooty botanical gardens. Because this last name rings a bell (several bells in fact – Henry had even mentioned getting a CD of the drawings from this very gentleman), this is where I concentrate my efforts. And this is where the lock fits, the key turns. I get lucky. Dr. Ramsunder proves in the end to be exactly the correct source, but sadly, not with the book itself, just the images. And not before I’ve spent days on some exhaustive (and futile) searches at the Botanical Garden office.

Fieldwork and archival searches are rarely glamorous, never easy. Especially in primary archives at India’s botanical gardens and government offices, where well meaning or indifferent bureaucrats tussle with scarce resources that adversely affect – always adversely affect – the art and archival treasures. As many of us researchers know, there’s no shortcut or advance preparation to stem this tide – most archivists and archives don’t even know (or rarely record) what they hold. In such cases, there’s often no better substitute than good old sweat and muscle – namely, just showing up and getting one’s hands dirty! And then showing up, again and again, without giving up. I go every day to the Botanical Garden office and make a pest of myself with the management office. A nice pest, I like to think, but a pest nonetheless. I sit there doggedly, writing permission letters and telling them about leads to be followed, until they take pity on me and let me search the office myself. A few young assistants are deputed – or attach themselves to me – and I figure why not, it must be a pleasant distraction from dull office work to help this apparently crazy person on a fool’s chase looking for a book they’ve never set eyes on. My Tamil is rusty and my English doesn’t translate – how do I say ‘watercolor’ or ‘card with spidery Victorian handwriting’? how do I describe the bleeding primary colours, the mustard and the magenta, the cut-stem perspective and black obsidian outlines of botanical art, the bleeping urgency of finding these (sometimes gorgeous and always priceless) paintings? I can’t, but I try – gesticulating and drawing wildly where words don’t suffice. I’m like a Pictionary game on a loop, on overdrive.

The library of the office of horticulture in the Ooty Garden is also the space where the Assistant Director sits, and on the very first day, when I am allowed into this hallowed room, they tell me there is no index. And only after I ask. No index? No index! So we comb through the shelves inch by inch, and because the A.D. arrives late (indeed I do not see her in my entire time there), they have to shoo me away from her chair on which I climb to reach the dusty elephant folios they’ve relegated to the top shelves. Fussy administrative hierarchy is aghast at this breach of protocol. From all that lifting, I know that the library does contain a few of the heavy hitters of Indian botany and botaical art – Hooker’s Rhodedendrons, many volumes of the Kew Bulletin, Biddie and Bedcomble, and Wight. Lots of Wight.

But (sob) no Lady Bourne album, no Ootacamund Flowers! There’s a minor moment of emotion – not joy exactly, but something that registers – when I find the only brownpaper-covered album of paintings in that office, mysteriously titled Cacti and Succulents. Inside there are some rudimentary and frankly quite bad paintings of domesticated garden plants. I email some of these bad images to Henry asking if these might be the Bourne paintings? Definitely not, he says. And even through my mounting disappointment, I’m somewhat relieved that these aren’t the ones. From what I can gather, Ootacamund Flowers must surely be more beautiful, much much more beautiful!   So at the end of three days, I have nothing. Zilch, zip, nada. I try the other libraries in town – the Nilgiri Library, the Rose Garden library – and the Nilgiri Documentation Center in Kotagiri. No luck there either. I’m resigned to never laying eyes on the Bourne album. And I’m angry, really angry, that its lost.

Finally, on my very last day there, with my spirits running low, I manage to reach and arrange to meet Dr. Ramsunder. Where shall we meet, I ask him, more because the bad connection seemed far too dodgy to continue the conversation by phone. Why, at the botanical garden office, he says. I know where the paintings are, I will show you. We meet. I learn his story. We walk into a (mercifully empty) office, he surveys the room and shakes his head. No, not here. I show him the iffy Cacti and Succulents album but he too rejects them. Then, hands behind his back like a general strategizing, he paces a bit, and then says – come, I will give you the images.

We go across to the office’s computer room, displace three young women working, and sit down to make the transfer. Umpteen misconnections between his old computer (DOS) to my Macair, but then after some struggle — voila! its done! I have the Lady Bourne album on my pen drive! The paintings look gorgeous on my screen, some of them, good enough to eat, to reach out and touch. I am giddy with delight. I can look at them at my leisure. I can share them with interested readers (as they are out of copyright). I can include them in my website for IFA (to come).

The tragedy is that the original Lady Bourne album – the volume titled Ootacamund Flowers — is stlll missing. Its vanished, simply vanished, from the office. But meanwhile, here below are some of the images in all their glory (the first 25 of them to whet appetites). And here also is a prayer and a plea – for anyone who reads this and has seen the Bourne album recently, please get in touch? There’s more riding on this than just the satisfaction of nailing a lost object, a missing piece of the botanical archive. If you know anything about Ootacamund Flowers (the book), speak up for the sake of Ootacamund’s flowers (the flowers) – past, present and future.

Botanicals speak volumes! They deserve careful preservation. If we accept that the Nilgiris and Ooty are changing, and have changed over a century, we might also accept that 100-year old botanical art is often the best record we have of this vanishing natural history. So let’s do this saving, this archival rescue, for the sake of our heritage. Let’s do it for the gone and going flowers in the rapidly morphing Blue Mountains. Let’s do it to bring back the true value of the ‘weight of a petal’ as it lives, dies and evolves.  Libraries and flora – and even botanical art, however sublime – are no substitutes for the flowers they represent on the page, in print. But if we can save even a small forgotten fragment of this precious archive, we transform loss into partial immortality for the ages. To use an alchemical metaphor, we manage – against all odds – to turn dross into gold. We manage to gild the proverbial, and often endangered, lily.

With grateful thanks to the India Foundation for the Arts for supporting this journey, and for suggesting that the botanical art quest was as worth describing as the Grail (Arundhati Ghosh, Tanveer Ajsi). To Jyothi Rao, Vikramdev Rao and Aparna Rao for introducing me to Ooty and for giving me a wonderful base to quest from. And to Susan John, Suresh Baburaj and Ramsunder for invaluable help with the quest itself.

13 thoughts on “Lost Archives: Ootacamund Flowers

  1. Apparently the name Ooty does not come from shortening Udhagamandalam. That is a Tamilized version of the original Toda namefor the place, Ootha-kai-mund (mund being the Toda word for a village/settlement).The Brits made it Ootacamund, of course and the Tamils further re-christened it.

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    • Hi Mridula. Absolutely! that was misinformation (in my post) and badly worded too, I’ll change it asap. I didn’t get into Oothakaimund or even more on the Todas, but I should have. I’m so glad I’m in touch with you, Iswar’s been telling me for ever. Resonances!

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  2. What a delightful and educational piece of writing! I admire your perseverance. Your passion for preserving botanical history is so inspiring. Like a true detective, you didn’t give up. I can’t wait to see your website.

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