Thursday, November 15, 2012

In the Garden of Malabar

German artist, Wilhelm Bronner, has focused on the various plants of the book, ‘Hortus Malabaricus’ (Garden of Malabar) in an exhibition at the David Hall, Fort Kochi 

Photo: Wilhelm Bronner by Mithun Vinod  

By Shevlin Sebastian

Ten months ago, German artist Wilhelm Bronner was wandering around the David Hall in Fort Kochi when he came across a pamphlet which described the history of the place. It was the residence of the Dutch governor Hendrik Van Rheede in the 17th century.

Van Rheede asked the Ayurveda physician Itty Achudhan about how the local people were so healthy. Because in Europe at that time, there was a lot of diseases and the standard of hygiene was poor. Achudhan replied that the people used the plants, not only for treatment of illnesses, but also in their diet. Van Rheede got very interested.

With the help of Achudhan, and several collaborators, over a period of 25 years, Reede was able to document most of the plants. “The collaboration between the coloniser and the colonised on an equal footing was illuminating,” says Wilhelm. “The end result was something extraordinary.”

The end result, indeed, was extraordinary. Reede brought out the 12 volume, ‘Hortus Malabaricus’ (Garden of Malabar), which is considered a classic, from 1678-93. In the book, there are 742 plants. “Artistically, I was immediately attracted to the beauty, preciseness and the delicateness of the drawings, apart from the scientific aspect,” says Wilhelm.

So, Wilhelm took photos of all the drawings and decided to reproduce them in his own creative way. So he sketched ten plants each from the 12 books to make 120 drawings. “The original is black ink on white paper, but I did the opposite: white ink on coloured wooden plates,” he says. 

Wilhelm also etched the names of the plants in the four languages of the Hortus: Latin, Konkani, Arabic and Malayalam. And amazingly, he met people who can still read the old languages.

On the cover of the first book is a drawing of a sensuous lady gardener reclining on the steps of a Greek temple. In front of her are several workers. “I have made 12 different watercolour copies of the gardener, to represent the 12 books,” says Wilhelm. Apart from that, Wilhelm has made two large paintings, which shows the face of Van Reede, with a solemn look on his face, a chef holding a ladle in one hand and a pizza in the other, and tourists wandering about, with glasses in their hand. At the bottom is a building with a red-tiled roof. “This is my impression of the modern-day David Hall,” says Wilhelm.

The painting has faces and noses having an elongated look, which was made world famous by Spanish painter Pablo Picasso. “I have been influenced by many painters,” says Wilhelm. “These include Picasso, William Turner and Gustav Klimt.”

William's style is focused on drawing people in different ways. Sometimes, it is realistic, at other times it is abstract, but always it is interesting (check out Wilhelm’s web site: But after working on the Hortus, flowers and plants have appeared in a series of five paintings called, 'Faces and Plants'. 

“This is the direct impact of the Hortus on me,” says Wilhelm. “I must add that India also has had a wonderful impact.”

This is Wilhelm’s fourth trip to the country and his third to Kochi. He first came in 1978. “Kochi has changed a lot,” he says. “This is a new world. There is so much of change. I would not judge whether it is good or bad. But thanks to technology, the communication system is so good now.”

And Wilhelm is attracted by the friendliness, spirituality and the sensuality of the Malayalis, in particular, and Indians, in general. “It is a land of such vibrant colours,” he says. “And people look stunning in whatever dress they wear.”

Incidentally, Wilhelm had his reasons to hold the exhibition at David Hall. “The work on the Hortus took place in this building,” he says. “Secondly, I wanted it to be an eye-opener to the Malayalis, about such an important and valuable book, which very few people seem to know of.”

Wilhelm has exhibited all over the world, in places as varied as Chile, USA, Germany, Italy, Brazil, France, Czech Republic, and Australia. And he plans to remain focussed on the Hortus. “I am going to do research on how the plants look in the original,” says Wilhelm. “And I also plan to study the medicinal benefits of each plant.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)  


  1. Interesting read!
    Haven't kept in touch since the episode with the photographs - mostly because I have relocated to Bangalore. Recently one of my colleagues (a Bengali and ex journalist) and I got into a discussion on Sportsworld - your name came up as we reminisced. Just thought you'd like to know.
    TC and will be back to read.

  2. Thanks for your great information, the contents are quiet interesting.I will be waiting for your next post.
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