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Game Birds of India - Paintings of Indian Birds

A fine collection of over a 150 colour plates of drawings of Indian birds is compiled into a book called ‘The Game Birds of India’. Truly one of the beneficial spin-offs of the British rule in India.

The emergence of the British as the paramount power in India resulted in a few unexpectedly beneficial consequences for the country. Several civil and military officers in the employ, first of the East India Company and after 1857 of the British Crown, began to devote themselves enthusiastically to scientific investigation, inter alia, of the natural history of India. While beautiful pictures of some birds and animals were indeed drawn by Indian miniature painters, notably Ustad Mansur early in the 17th century, they did not follow any regular pattern. Select Englishmen set about making a systematic study of the country’s fauna, and throughout the 19th century books and illustrations of Indian birds and animals kept on adding to available knowledge.

One of the finest and most comprehensive works on birds of India was The Game Birds of India, Burmah and Ceylon by allan Octavian Hume and Captain C.H.T. Marshall which appeared in three volumes between 1879 and 1881. Hume, a British administrator and one of the founding-fathers of the Indian National Congress, was also a keen ornithologist. He not only wrote the entire text of The Game Birds, but also planned the production of the drawings of birds by Indian artists on commission or by talented British amateur artists interested in ornithology. At his suggestion, Marshall spent about one year to have these drawings prepared by reputed British artists of bird life like Stanley Wilson, E. Neale, W. Foster and A.W. Strutt.

Despite the provision of precise particulars of the colours of soft parts to the artists, some inaccuracies of depiction still occurred in the plates, particularly as so many different artists were involved in the pictorial project. The net result nevertheless was a set of eminently engaging plates of Indian birds unexcelled so far. Their merit is affirmed by the inclusion of over one hundred of them to illustrate the book Indian Sporting Birds by ornithologist Frank Finn some 35 years later.

The Game Birds, illustrated with 152 colour plates and published in Calcutta by the authors themselves, was well received both in India and Britain. The first volume contained 46 plates portraying birds like the Great Indian Bustard, Grouse, Pheasant and the Jungle Fowl. The second had 48 plates depicting different kinds of Partridge and Quail. The third was the largest with 54 plates, mostly of water birds like Crane, Goose, Duck and Teal. Four plates at the end of the volume were illustrations of eggs.

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