By: Ganesh Saili

‘A splash of colour! How could one ignore it?’ says Himani, a brilliant botanist, who was then an officer trainee of the All India Services. I was introducing her to the delights of photography.

‘A Gulmohar in blossom: flaming red, brown and green set the mind afire!’ The OTs (as we called them) had arrived, late one evening, at an old Dak Bungalow. The only colour in the room was a forlorn picture dangling on the wall. ‘Sir! The bunched up flowers, the leaves and the tree painted vividly sang one song: Thakur Ganga Singh. Only he could paint like that!’

Elsewhere, over a hundred years ago, that is exactly how Barrister Mukandi Lal, a student at Oxford, browsing in an antique shop in Soho, chanced upon his first Garhwal painting, with its tender depiction of women from our epics seated beside Mola Ram’s mandar blossoms leaping at him.

When you think of Garhwal, imagine the small village of Kakhola, in Tehri with its nineteen souls. Out of which came a sixteen-year-old boy to Dehradun in 1911 to the Forest Research Institute. Henceforth it was his karma bhoomi, where he trained for the next twenty years to become an exceptionally talented botanical artist.

“Ganesh! Look at these two,” said Rahul Singh, introducing me to his collection of art, acquired down the years from auction houses around the world. Nothing! Nay nothing could have prepared me for what was about to unfold. They were the loveliest botanical painting I had ever held in my hands. They are so real; they gave me goose bumps.

The art of flower-painting dates back as far as 1620, when the Mughal ruler Jahangir commissioned a detailed study of the botany on a visit to Kashmir in springtime. Of course, TGS’s work, to a limited extent, is rooted in the western tradition of British botanical artists like Hooker, from which he broke away to evolve a style that was to become all his own. The longer you look at his work, the more you will see a mastery over his medium. The images seem to float off the surface. Others tell you his paintings are so real that they attract passing bees and butterflies.

Honoured in 1943, with the title of Rai Sahib at a convocation honouring his contribution to the art, I can imagine the central hall resounded with the boom of:
‘Rai Sahib Ganga Singh,
You have worked as the Artist of the Botany Branch of the Forest Research Institute for the last twenty-five years, and during this period your drawings have appeared in numerous journals and periodicals of this Institute and elsewhere.

Your work has been highly spoken of and greatly appreciated by scientists from other parts of the World and the high standard of your work, and in recognition of your long service and the high standard of your work, His Excellency the Viceroy of India has been pleased to confer upon you the title of Rai Sahib, as a personal distinction. I have the honour to invest you with the badge of Rai Sahib and to present you with the sanad on behalf of His Excellency the Viceroy of India.’

To take his mind off things, to get away from it all, he played as a centre-forward for the FRI football team. In his spare moments, he went on to paint life-size paintings of the Mahants of the Darbar of Guru Ram Rai. Retirement saw him join the Maharaja of Patiala in 1946, as an artist. In his twenty years in his court, he painted some four hundred water-colours, before passing away in 1971.

Two decades later, Himani reminds me. ‘It’s priceless! Wonder if it’s still there? Wish it were shifted to a place where it was accounted for!’

Till then, in the interests of fair play and justice, I’m afraid, our lips are sealed. Until a secure place is found, let that Dak Bungalow remain nameless; let it wallow in its air of decrepitude and let it remain an orphan. Till the day good foster parents are found, at least for survival, Thakur Ganga Singh’s work must rest in peace.

Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.