Book Review: Flower Shower – The culture of flowers in India

FE Bureau
Images of flowers and flowering plants form a leitmotif that have run through the textiles of India, whether made by a village woman for her family, by a court artisan, or by a professional weaver for the export trade.

Miniature Treasures
The lotus, the champa (plumeria) and the genda (marigold), to name a few, have been a recurring leitmotif in the art of India over the centuries. This seeps into the miniature paintings that display the richest variety of flower paintings. The earliest examples of miniature painting in India are found in the religious texts on Buddhism executed under the Pala Dynasty of eastern India, and the Jain texts created in western India during the 11th to 12th centuries AD.

Numerous illustrated manuscripts on palm leaf contain images of Bodhisattvas or Jain saints, with decorative borders and panels using the lotus and other flower patterns. The Muslim invasion in the first half of the 13th century led to mass-scale destruction of Buddhist monasteries, and with it the decline of this school of art. However, the Western India School of Art continued to flourish in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Malwa during the 12th to 16th centuries, due to patronage of wealthy Jain merchants. This school was also the repository of many miniature paintings found in illustrated texts. Among the most famous texts are Kalakacharya-Katha (circa 1400) which is now housed in the Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai, and the Kalpasutra (circa 1439) from Mandu, housed in the National Museum, New Delhi.

The pietra dura of the Mughal school especially feature flower motifs, as depictions of the body were prohibited. A sensitive example of this is Mansur's painting of scarlet Kashmiri tulips roughly dating back to the 17th century. In the 'Portrait of a Ruler of a Rajput Royal Family' by the Kishangarh artist, Amar Chand, the subject is seated on a terrace, outlined against the blue sky, holding a flower, possibly a rose, in front of him. Another instance is the Jammu work 'Portrait of Maharaja Gulab Singh,' the subject of which is not only depicted reverently inhaling the fragrance of the flower in his hand but is also seated on a jama that bears a rose pattern. His turban is also adorned with a flower-shaped ornament.

In the south the Deccani School flourished in Bijapur, under the patronage of Ali Adil Shah I (1558–80) and his successor Ibrahim II (1580–1627). The Najum-al-ulum (Stars of Sciences) was an encyclopaedia illustrated in 1570 during the reign of Ali Adil Shah I. Containing nearly 900 miniatures, it has been preserved in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. The statuesque and lean women featuring in the works are clad in South Indian dress. The 'Throne of Prosperity' is one of the subjects that has been depicted. Persian influences are apparent in the use of gold, the arabesque patterning and the flora used atop the throne. Many salient characteristics of the Deccani tradition are also manifest as can be demonstrated by the distinctive colour palette, the palm trees, the wildlife and men and women portrayed.

Miniature painting reached its peak with the Mughal School of Art, which was formally established in Akbar's court. Under the patronage of various successors of Akbar, this school was an elegant and refined synthesis of indigenous Indian styles of painting and the Safavid school of Persian painting. It is defined by its love of naturalism derived from close observation of nature. Famous manuscripts of Akbar's era containing beautiful miniatures are the Akbarnama (circa 1600) now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the Hamzanama, now part of a private collection in Switzerland.

A famous portrait of Jahangir (1615–20) is part of the miniature collection at the National Museum, New Delhi. Unusually, it shows Jahangir with a picture of the Virgin Mary clasped in his hand. Along the golden borders are profusions of flowers. Another miniature (circa 1650) at the National Museum is from Shah Jahan's court and shows a gathering of sufi saints in an open setting. The background shows green foliage against a golden sky, while the borders have floral designs in gold.

The Essential Motif
Images of flowers and flowering plants form a leitmotif that have run through the textiles of India, whether made by a village woman for her family, by a court artisan, or by a professional weaver for the export trade. Although some of the most common flower motifs (buta) and the paisley on Kashmir shawls can also be so stylised that they may appear to be simply abstract forms, their roots are firmly embedded in a love of gardens and flowering plants that dates back at least to the court cultures of the early years of the Safavid Dynasty in Iran (1501–1732) and the Mughal Dynasty in India (1526–1857). They take on many avatars such as embroidered shawls made by artisans for themselves to the buta in twill tapestry that were carefully crafted and then sent abroad to enter the realm of the European elite.

Nora Fisher notes that in Gujarat, village women, as well as professional embroiderers from the Mochi community would take the aid of drawings when they were creating their designs at the turn of the nineteenth century.

It is therefore interesting to note that the buta that border many shawls came about after various concepts and ideas about floral designs were synthesised from medieval Iranian images, pre-Islamic nature imagery and botanical drawings from France and the Netherlands. The final outcome was so beautiful that it dotted the cultural landscape of the Mughal world and was favoured by peasants and nobles alike.

Asawali and Amarvell-Western India
The Satavahana Dynasty in 200 BCE made the city of Paithan its capital, alongside the holy Godavari river. The Paithani style is named for this city, renowned as it was for an over two-millennia-old textile tradition that hinged on carefully weaving multi-coloured threads together with gold and silver into a single, magnificent piece. It was but natural that the Satvahana rulers would then go on to give the Paithani style great impetus, being responsible for its spread across the Deccan. So favoured did it become that the style endured under the rule of other kings, the Mughals stamping their mark on it with the addition of floral patterns and the amarvell (flowering vine) motif. It even charmed the cold-hearted Mughal monarch, Aurangzeb, under whom it evolved.

Delectable Blooms
Flowers have always been a part of the Indian kitchen cupboard-as kewra essence (extracted from the pandanus plant) used to enhance the taste of kheer and Mughlai chicken curry, zafran (saffron) which is the prized possession of every gourmet cook, and rose water-often used in north Indian cuisine. Many cultures use flowers in their traditional cooking-squash blossoms in Italian food and rose petals in Indian food are just two examples. Adding flowers to your food is an easy way to add colour and flavour to certain dishes. Their range-from spicy to herbaceous and floral to fragrant-is surprisingly huge.

The desi gulab or the bright pink Indian rose is probably the most widely-used flower in the Indian kitchen. Gulab ki kheer or the rose-petal rice pudding-a gift from the Mughals to the Hindu kitchen-as well as gulab ki kulfi or rose ice cream, are all rich examples of the use of this flower in Indian food.

Some of the most refreshing Indian coolers use kewra essence that is made by distilling pandanus flowers. The pandanus is a perennial plant which grows wild in Asian countries. It is commonly referred to as screw pine. Kewra is widely used in Indian cuisine-from flavouring biryani and kebabs, to adding aroma to desserts and sherbets.

Zafran or kesar, consists of deep orange stigmas of the Crocus sativus flower grown in Kashmir and costs as much as gold. It is added as a flavouring agent to the best of shrikhand, a yoghurt-based delicacy from Maharashtra, to the kesar rabri or saffron-flavoured Indian cream, to that very delicate foam as light as a whisper called daulat ka chaat made by few surviving halwais in the traditional towns of Kanpur and Varanasi.

Floral essences in Indian cuisine became popular with what we call 'Mughlai' food-the cuisine that evolved in the courts of the Mughal emperors-a lovely example of the plurality of Indian culture. The love of flowers as an integral part of food, shared by both the indigenous people of India and the later Central Asian settlers, began with the Mughal emperor Babur, who made India his home in 1526 CE.

Pages 39-42, 144, 229-230
Excerpted with permission from Niyogi Books
Flower Shower: The Culture of Flowers in India
Alka Pande
Niyogi Books
Pp 260, Rs 1,995