An antelope and an artist

Puneeta Sharma working on the restoration of the 160-year-old water colour on paper painting by Rajman Singh Chitrakar of a Tibetan antelope at the Zoological Society London. Photo: ZSL

A painting of a rare Tibetan antelope by a Nepali artist gifted by Jang Bahadur Rana to the British resident in Kathmandu in the mid-19th century has come alive thanks to the painstaking work of a British restoration artist of Indian descent.

The story of the 160-year-old painting from Nepal, and how it came to be stored at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), is an intriguing tale of the convergence of history, art, zoology and politics.    

In 2014, Puneeta Sharma was looking for a graduation project at the Camberwell College of Arts in London and was going through the ZSL’s archives when, in a collection of wildlife art from Britain’s colonial possessions, she came across the painting of a chiru, the Tibetan antelope prized for its wool.

The fine shatoosh fur from the necks of baby antelopes is used to weave the finest pashmina shawls which are so valuable that the graceful animal that grazes on the western Tibetan Plateau has been hunted almost to extinction, because it takes the fur of four baby antelopes to make a single shawl.

There is even a theory that the Anglo-Nepal War of 1814-16 was fought because the East India Company wanted access to the high Himalayan passes to Tibet that were then controlled by the Gorkha Empire.     

“It was a natural urge that made me want to preserve this work of art,” Sharma recalls. “Much of it was because the artwork belonged to Nepal, a close neighbour of my parents’ country.”

The painting of the chriu antelope with Rajman Singh Chitrakar’s caption below the margin.

The gauche painting was water colour on Nepali lokta paper, measuring 83.5 x 63.5cm and was deteriorating with age. Even more intriguing were two inscriptions on the painting. One was a Devnagari caption, and the other in English at the back read: ‘Birds and mammals done by my painter. Sent to me by Jung Bahadur.’

This was in the handwriting of Brian Houghton Hodgson (1820-43) who was the first British Resident in Kathmandu, a keen naturalist and who served as one of the earliest links between Kathmandu Valley and the outside world.

Hodgson spent more of his time immersing himself into Kathmandu’s culture, indigenous inhabitants and researching Nepal’s incredible biodiversity than being a listening post for the Company. At his own expense he trained a group of Nepali research assistants to collect plant and animal specimen, preserve and paint them.

One of his apprentices was Rajman Singh Chitrakar, whose pencil sketches are an important pictorial record of 19th century Kathmandu Valley. As it turns out, the Devnagari caption below the painting was by Rajman Chitrakar.

Puneeta at first thought it might be Hindi, and sought the help of her parents who had left India to settle in UK in 1970, but they could not make sense of it. Her grandmother in India could not decipher it either. Then she approached her uncle Major General Vijay Kumar Dutt, who had served with Gorkha troops in the Indian Army.  

He translated the Nepali sentence roughly to read: ‘The deer is roaming in the king’s jungle.”

No one really knows what Rajman Singh looked like, but this is how his descendant Madan Chitrakar imagined him for a postage stamp in 2012.
The magnified caption in Rajman Singh Chitrakar’s handwriting.

It turns out that although the painting was by a Nepali artist, the chiru antelope was not from Nepal at all. In his book the Prisoner of Kathmandu: Brian Hodgson in Nepal, Charles Allen (who died last week at the age of 80) says the antelope was in fact reared at a monastery in Tibet of the Tashi Lama, the second spiritual leader after the Dalai Lama.

The chiru was gifted to the king of Nepal, who gave it to Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa, who then passed it on to Brian Hudgson because of his interest in exotic Himalayan wildlife. But the antelope never got used to the heat in Kathmandu and died within a month at the British Residency in Lazimpat. Hodgson then sent the fur and horns of the animal to Clarke Abel at the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta.

Close-up of the antelope’s head reveals the fine detail.

Some time before it died, it appears Rajman Chitrakar painted the antelope. And from Hodgson’s writing at its back one can surmise that Jang Bahadur gifted this painting and many others to the British Resident, with whom he was close.  

The chiru was one of the first mammals that Hodgson introduced into the world, personally naming the species, the Patholops hodgsonii in 1834. According to ornithologist Carol Inskipp it is believed that Hodgson transported specimens of 9,512 species of animals and birds from Nepal and Darjeeling to the UK. Among them, 124 species had never before been classified.

Hemsagar Baral, who represents ZSL in Nepal says that much of what we know today about Nepal’s biodiversity is still from Hodgson’s records in the 1830s, and the drawings and paintings done by his Nepali assistants. In fact, even though it has not been sighted in Nepal for 200 years, the chiru is recorded in the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act of Nepal as an indigenous endangered species.

For a more exact translation of Rajman Chitrakar’s inscription in the back of his painting, we approached archivist Shamik Mishra at the Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya in Kathmandu. Mishra’s translation is somewhat different from that done by Puneeta Sharma’s military uncle: ‘This chiru animal lives in the snow in the jungles of China’s Thiri state.’   

Puneeta Sharma now works as a conservator in the Royal Collection Trust at Windsor Castle. Her thesis titled The Convergence of a Watercolour and Gauche Painting 1840 has recorded the painstaking restoration of the painting that was framed, and moved from the ZSL’s warehouse to a pride of place on the wall of its library.

She says: “Many visitors are attracted by this beautiful painting, and 160 years after it was created, Rajman Chitrakar’s painting is still introducing Nepal to the world.”

Read also:

Pencilling in Kathmandu, Niels Gutschow

Giving their art and soul, Naresh Newar

Nepal's botanical art in Wuhan, Nepali Times

200 years of botanical art, Nepali Times

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