Neatly arranged rows of brightly-coloured panels greet the eye, offset against the surgical theatre whiteness of the walls of the gallery. There’s an apparent science to these images that pay painterly homage to nature. “The New Hortus Malabaricus” is German artist Wilhelm Bronner’s contemporary reinterpretation of a seventeenth century botanical treatise which contains the first block-printed evidence of Konkanni in Devanagiri. Bronner was on hand to converse with visitors to the Sanskruti Bhavan art gallery at the Krishnadas Shama Central Library where his work was displayed between 19th and 23rd February, 2013. The exhibition was organized by the Government of Goa’s Directorate of Art and Culture.
The original Hortus Malabaricus catalogued 742 plants from the Malabar Coast. Comprising of twelve volumes with descriptions in Latin, Malayalam, Arabic, and Konkanni, it was published between 1608 and 1703. The Konkanni contribution came from the physicians Ranga Bhat, Vinayak Pandit, and Appu Bhat who were part of the team that worked on the compilation, connoting a cultural and linguistic connection to Goa within the annals of the history of science.
Bronner’s take on the Malabaricus revisits colonial history and the power relations inherent in classification projects. In the exhibition notes, the artist states: “The scientific work has to be seen as an unusual cooperative work between the Dutch invadors [sic] and the local people. Over a period of 20 years Adrian Van Rheede, Govenor [sic] of Cochin and the Malabar Coast and Itty Atchuthan, head of the local Brahmans were constantly working together.” What made such an association “unusual”? The Dutch bested the Portuguese in Cochin in 1663, evidencing the linked histories of the European colonization of the Malabar Coast and Goa. However, the collaboration between the Dutch and the native elite, even if in the confines of a colonial hierarchy, speaks to the perpetuation of institutionalized authority. For the Dutch, Bronner muses, the Malabaricus mission provided knowledge of local medicinal flora, guaranteeing their health in a foreign land. Likewise, their native counterparts offered expertise which assured their own status would not be destabilized, Bronner adds.
Not without whimsy, the artist’s twelve comical versions of a classical illustration from the older Malabaricus render a genteel European and her infantilized attendant labourers in flamboyant colour. This irreverent departure from the solemn black and white of the Early Modern period paints the picture anew. It invites viewers to look at the botanical project for how it parallels the ordering of plants and human interactions in the convergence of science and art amidst the multiple hues of history.
The print version of this article, with many unapproved alterations, appears here. See Wilhelm Bronner's website here.