From Kalbose to Haludaria: Why a fish renamed after an obscure Bengali painter

Kalbose is a Gangetic fish which has been known for 200 years. In 2010 a Sri Lankan proposed to renaming one of the carps as Haludaria in honour of an obscure Bengali artist called Haludar

Illustration of Tortor by Haludar
Illustration of Tortor by Haludar
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Nilosree Biswas

Our brain is partial to anything related to food. As John S Allen, says in the book “The Omnivorous Mind; Our Evolving Relationship with Food (Harvard University Press, 2012), “Food has meaning, it evokes memories, and it shapes identities and these memories are multiple and they consist of many histories”.

And so, it is fish that has remained a collective memory of Bengal.

My earliest recall as a four year old of a drawing of a generic fish was from a colourfully illustrated childrens’ book called Tutu–Bhutu, a story of a dog and a cat who are best friends. They embarkon their adventure of a lifetime on a picnic day, when they happen to catch a humongous fish, seemingly a Kalbose. a genus of carp found in freshwaters of tropical Asia and parts of Africa.

They struggle carrying it back to Bhutu’s home where a gala feast is arranged with unlimited recipes prepared from the catch. The names of those sumptuous dishes can bring back more than one memory, to each his own.

Tutu–Bhutu
Tutu–Bhutu

Kalbose appears in a scientific illustration for the first time in a massive scientific documentation in undivided Bengal nearly 200 years ago. The survey was an illustration-based tabulation of freshwater species published in the year 1822 titled ‘An Account of the Fishes found in the River Ganges and its Branches’.

Behind this remarkable scientific survey lay the story of collaboration between a Scottish doctor Francis Buchanan Hamilton and an obscure Bengali artist called Haludar.

In the latter half of 18th and 19th century, East India Company`s interest in learning more about local flora and fauna as well as passions of Company’s officials led natural history to become one of the most important subjects in Indian painting.

Malini Ray, the head of Visual Arts at the British Library, mentions in her essay in Forgotten Masters of Indian Painting for The East India Company, “Copies and duplicate sets of natural history drawings were commissioned, the intention being that a set would remain in India while another would be sent to East India Company`s Library in London.”

Moloch gibbon drawn for Francis Buchanan by Haludar
Moloch gibbon drawn for Francis Buchanan by Haludar

Invariably, the British–Scottish surveyors would be remembered by posterity and Buchanan is also remembered for one of the biggest natural history surveys that India had ever undertaken. The less-known collaborator Haludar faded away from public memory until he was unearthed via a spectacular exhibition on Company Art curated by historian William Dalrymple, aptly named ‘Forgotten Masters (of) Indian Painting for The East Indian Company’.

Sloth bear drawn for Francis Buchanan by Haludar, c. 1799-1806
Sloth bear drawn for Francis Buchanan by Haludar, c. 1799-1806

Fortified with a MD degree and training in natural history from University of Edinburgh in 1783, Francis Buchanan rejected the idea of practicing medicine in Scotland like his father. He chose a job that he thought would help him nurture scientific research and brought him to India as an Assistant Surgeon of Bengal Presidency. He landed in Kolkata in the year 1794.

The first assignment of25-year-old Buchanan was in Burma and then he was transferred to Company`s eastern most territory, at a remote location called Luckipore, present day Lakhimpore, of south east Bangladesh.

The job of a medical officer was just an alibi for Buchanan, whose interest lay in research. Frustrated, he felt he was being pushed away from scientific engagement while his competitor William Roxburgh, in charge of Calcutta Botanic Gardens, was gaining recognition not only in the influential circles of East India Company but also in the luminous salons of London.

The verdant nature of the location however drew him in. He started exploring the freshwater species of mighty Meghna and its tributary Subansiri. It is here in the years of 1795-1798 that Buchanan was introduced to Haludar.

In the next two decades Buchanan would continue to collaborate with Haludar across different postings in Bengal including Barrackpore near Kolkata where he was put in charge of Lord Wellesley`s private menagerie commencing the Governor General`s plan to illustrate and document birds and quadrupeds of Bengal.

It was however Lord Wellesley’s unfettered support that made Buchanan stick around. He took over the role of being Wellesley’s personal physician and the lead for‘The Natural History Project of India’ an ambitious initiative that unfortunately got aborted due to power struggles between Wellesley and Cornwallis.

By 1822 ‘Fishes of Ganges’ was published with Buchanan crediting Haludar in the manuscript as a ‘Bengali youth’. Acknowledging a local artist of Indian origin was unthinkable in those colonial times.

In 2010 Rohan Pethiyagoda, a leading naturalist of Sri Lanka, proposed a name change for a genus of fresh water fish called cyprinids or carps as ‘Haludaria’ named in honour of ‘Haludar’. He mentions in his paper, “Haludarianom. nov. is named for ‘Haludar, a Bengal youth’ who ca 1797 was ‘the artist who made the exquisite illustrations of “Gangetic Fishes”’ depicted in Francis Hamilton’s (1822)”.

One wonders what the long forgotten Haludar and other Indian artists who were allowed to slide into oblivion would have made of it, if the honour had come their way in their lifetime and not 200 years later.

(The writer is a Mumbai based author and filmmaker)

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