Hortus Malabaricus, a book that continues to inspire many artists

When I raise the subject ‘History of Fort Kochi’, why is that I hear these two words repeatedly? What is Hortus Malabaricus?

In the 17th century, the Dutch came to Cochin for trade purposes but eventually became its rulers. Hendrik van Rheed, the then Governor of Cochin, seeing the local people hale and hearty, asked Ayurveda physician, Itty Achudhan, the reason behind it. The physician replied, people here use plants with medicinal properties as part of the daily diet and some to treat illnesses effectively.

Van Rheed grew interested and took up a novel project to document all these plans with the help of a botanist, a doctor, and a translator. He sent people to collect the plants from far and wide, grew them in his garden and studied them. There were then carefully sketched and noted along with their respective medicinal properties. This compilation, originally in Latin, is Horti Malabarici. The 12-volume book with 742 drawings compiled over a period of 30 years was published in Amsterdam between 1678 and 1693.

The book, since then, has been of interest to many.

A German artist, Wilhelm Bronner, on his fourth visit to India attended a visual installation at David Hall, which happened to be on Hortus Malabaricus. He was inspired by the project, the drawings, and the very act of collaboration between Hendrik van Rheed and the Ayurveda Physician, Itty Achudhan. In one interview, he had said, “The collaboration between the colonizer and the colonized on an equal footing was illuminating. The result was something extraordinary.”

He decided to do a fresh interpretation of the subject. He presented his idea to ‘cgh’ group, the owners of the tome. They allowed him free access and he photographed the 742 drawings present in the 12 volumes.

Bronner took his project seriously. He turned his studio in Germany into a private garden for three months, worked on each single plant, studying the properties and appearance. He must have grown and cared for the plants with great dedication because he also said, “I could smell the plants and see the frog.”

Bronnen later exhibited his interpretation in 120 works in wooden panels in October, 2012.

Another beautiful work inspired by Hortus Malabaricus, which I got to see by artist Ouso Chakola, was this:

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(Ouso Chakola completed Bachelors Degree in Visual Communication at the department of Art & Design, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia)

About the paintings, best explained by Bipin Balachandran, an art historian and writer, “The images are of native people or social groups, again, overlapped with the images of Hortus Malabaricus and they show class distinctions or social hierarchies existed in that period. The portraits shown here thus become a pastiche of the taxonomic representations of Hortus Malabaricus and pose the question as to who is looking at who, today?”

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It is Hendrik van Rheed in the background collage

Renee Ridgway, an American artist got acquainted with Hortus Malabaricus after she was cured of her migraine and sinus problems by Thomas Punnen, a Kochi-based Ayurvedic doctor, who was then in Netherlands. She and her filmmaker friend undertook a project based on the book and unveiled their work at David Hall, which also is believed to be the place where Van Rheed undertook his project.

“The drawings in the book are so beautiful. They choked my heart,” Wilhelm Bronner had said. I am convinced that this is no ordinary book.  The book, which is a source of inspiration to many artists, is now with ‘cgh’ group. They do have a property called ‘Eighth Bastion’ on Napier Street, Fort Kochi. The book could be there or someplace else. I don’t know. But, on my next trip to Fort Kochi, I know exactly what to do.

References:

  1. Hortus Malabaricus revisited. The Hindu. 25 October, 2012
  2. The Dutch treasure trove. The New Indian Express. February, 2012
  3. Text by Bipin Balachandran. .pastiche, re-written histories. October, 2014
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15 thoughts on “Hortus Malabaricus, a book that continues to inspire many artists

    • Thank you Vishnu and Good question. Bronner was introduced to medicinal plants not found in Germany through this project. He grew them in his studio. He could have associated the aroma from the plants to the lush vegetation of Kerala symbolically represented by a frog. This is my assumption. Personally, I could smell Medimix soap and see a glimpse of Kerala 😉

  1. It’s a pity most of the article written by many writers on how the sketches of “Hortus Malabaricus” continue to inspire artists fail to mention the name of the very artist who drew the whole lot. RIP Friar Mattheus, without your artistic skills and multilingual ability this book would not have materialized and Governor Van Rheed would be known only as the one who brought down the ‘magnificent Cochin’ about which even Nicolo Conti bragged about.
    Nice effort, Gypsy.

    • Thanks for adding that crucial point Thomas! Unfortunately, I have not been able to find references to Friar Mattheus. I would really appreciate if you could provide a link or some additional information.

  2. Very interesting! I’m embarrassed to say that despite having spent such a long time lounging around in Fort Kochi, this is the first time I’m hearing of “Hortus Malabaricus” :\

    • There are stories just about everywhere. It is alright not to know all of them 😉 By the way, curiosity on the history of Fort Kochi bloomed only on my fourth visit to that place 😀

      • Haan, I guess it’s going to take me a couple more visits then. Usually, the routine is to walk to a cafe around the tourist area, drink coffee and make conversation with strangers 😛

        Did you go back to springr?

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