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.”