Skip to main content

TAXIDERMY - A SUBLIME ART FORM

I have always marveled at the ability some people have for drawing faces. At school we had our classmate Narendra Basnyat who could take a pencil or crayons or water colour and draw faces the likeness of which were striking. I have got a crayon portrait of my father posing with his tiger he killed with a Colt .45 painted by a female Swiss artist in 1960. It still looks as good as new! I used to watch her draw in wonderment and could not help but notice how, in her concentration, she would cross and un-cross her leg ad infinitum. What started out as a charcoal outline of faces on canvas - my father's and the tiger's - transformed into their mirror images by the time she was finished. I have forgotten her name. She was a visiting artist, perhaps free lancing and making money on the side to subsidize her travel. The faces that have impressed me the most though are the self portraits by Vincent Van Gogh and, of course, "Mona Lisa" by Leonardo da Vinci. But I am digressing...

Crayon General Kiran and tiger
The art form I want to narrate here is not painting, but taxidermy. Taxidermy, the art of preserving animal pelt for posterity was started by pre-historic humans who needed the animal skins and fur for protection against inclement weather. In modern times vanity took over. Animal furs were worn for effect, the more expensive the better. Wearing expensive mink coats with very little under became de rigueur in the sixties. Rich widows thought of preserving their much loved pets for posterity.

Taxidermy evolved to an exact art form and science as serious as portrait painting when big game hunters mounted the trophies they bagged, sometimes full body, but many times heads alone or heads attached to the skin. Hunters wanted their animal heads to be as life-like as possible - the snarling tiger caught in its ferocious beauty or the roaring lion caught in its awesome majesty - and they were willing to pay a king's ransom for them! In this art form Van Ingen & Van Ingen were the masters nonpareil.

Van Ingen family in Mysore
I cannot say for sure why a Dutch family started this business based in Mysore in South India and whether the family had a similar business in Holland prior to their arrival in India. Eugene van Ingen started the business in the 1890s and ever since until the firm decided to close shop in 1999 it has been a family affair. Among a handful of competing taxidermists Van Ingen was the first choice of the leading Indian royal families keen on showing off their prized hunting trophies, a status the family gained by innovation in the building of "moulds" for the heads of the animals. They imported glass eyes from Germany. Badly mounted animal heads just like bad painting render the subject into a caricature; a tiger could very well look like a domestic cat. I have seen such poor examples.

When my father was professionally arranging for big game shoot for his clients in the sixties, I had the opportunity of watching at close-hand how the local sarki cobbler, dispatched from Kathmandu, skinned the animals and tanned the skins. He meticulously cleaned the underside of the skin of all muscles and fatty tissues and hung them to dry. By the time the skin came to Kathmandu it was taut, shrunk and wrinkled beyond recognition. The head was as flat as rest of the skin with two holes where the eyes had been and a bigger opening lower down where the mouth had been. Looking at the skin one could not ever imagine that a beautiful mounted head would ever come back from the taxidermist. But they did, time and again.

Collection of Van Ingen mounts
During the heydays of Van Ingen & Van Ingen between the years 1930 and 1960 factory records show that 400 animal skins were processed and mounted every year. The skins were of tigers, lions, leopards, buffaloes and even African games sent by European and American hunters to Mysore - such was their fame! During the Rana period the ruling families sent their trophies for stuffing to India, mainly to Van Ingen. Most of my father's own collection from the 1950s also was mounted by Van Ingen. Records gleaned from an extensive study of the ledgers of Van Ingen made by British author Dr. Pat Morris showed that as late as 1961 the King of Nepal had dispatched for stuffing 6 tiger and 22 leopard skins.

The last surviving son of the founder Joubert van Ingen is now reported to be 98 years old. No big game hunting is allowed any more anywhere in the world. We are looking at the end of an era and an art form.


      

Comments

  1. Interesting topic about taxidermy in this part of the world about which not much is written by historians. So this is very useful documentation, not to mention the fact that you have written it up as usual in a personal, entertaining manner.

    One reason the Dutch started the taxidermy business may have been because of the presence of the Dutch East India Company in South India at that time. And they figured how to make money from the Maharajas' fondness for hunting.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

RANI MAHAL, THE STORY OF ITS MAKER

PROLOGUE
The first time I ever saw this historical edifice thirty five years ago, she was in ruins and looked like an old hag during the winter of her life, simply waiting for her eventual demise. I was then on my way further west on a week-long trek from Tansen to Tamghas in Gulmi District.
Thirty five years later, I found myself at the same spot once again, this time out there on purpose. I had seen pictures of the building with a coat of new paint before and I wanted to see how much change had been made by the Nepal Government’s Department of Archeology. Yes, the outer fa├žade still looked brand new with fresh paints, which to me personally was a bit too gaudy. But when I walked through the inside of the building and saw nothing but empty rooms without even a single piece of furniture, my enthusiasm took a nose dive.

And when I entered one room where there was a fireplace with the floor in front of the hearth still looking as black as charcoal, I assumed that, over the years before ren…

THE SATI WIVES OF JUNG BAHADUR, MAHARAJAH OF NEPAL

If only the Tudor King Henry VIII of England were as lucky as Jung Bahadur Rana, he would have had male heirs aplenty and he would not have had to behead a few of his queens in the hope of his next one presenting him with an heir. All the Maharanis would live together at Hampton Court Palace in seeming harmony at least until the death of the Maharajah. If England had the tradition of Sati, who among Henry's wives would have had the macabre honour of being buried alive with him? Would her be Catherine of Aragon his first queen? Or Anne Boleyn? Or the fair Jane Seymour, his favorite queen who gave him his only male heir, had she not died in her postnatal illness?

Maharajah Jung Bahadur Rana had many wives because he did not have the Catholic Church to worry about. He had at least a dozen sons and innumerable daughters from at least 13 recorded wives. He married some for love, others for political alliances with various noble houses, including a sister of Fateh Jung Shah, one of th…

FEATHERS IN THE CROWN

As a kid I used to gape in wonderment at the magnificent crown my father possessed not knowing that the jewels were only for show. The dark green emerald drops were made of glass, the sparkling diamonds were probably zirconium and the pearls were not of the best sort. Every Rana general had his personal crown in those days and my father was no exception. I did not recognize the difference between this personal crown of father's and the other more valuable crown of the Nepalese Commander-in-Chief of the Army that my father was seen wearing in many a portrait displayed about the house. Little did I know that my father was the last person to put on his head the army chief's crown from the Rana era, real glittering diamonds, snow white pearls and thumb-sized emerald drops and all. The feather in the crown was the magnificent plumes of the Bird of Paradise that gave it such a majestic look.

Nepal had only three crowns that were genuinely the real stuff bedecked with expensive pear…