Get set for the game birds of India

Bird Art

Get set  for the game birds of India

Born in Kent, England, Hume came to India when he was 20.  Joining the civil service in the North-Western Provinces (now, Uttar Pradesh), he rose to several high-ranking positions, before rebelling against the authorities and resigning from the services.

While in service, Hume was known for many progressive ideas and action. Advocating a humane and civilised government, he endorsed free primary education, condemned infanticide and enforced widowhood, and criticised earning revenue through liquor traffic (calling it ‘the wages of sin’). He is credited to have started a local newspaper Lokmitra.

Besides political reformation, Hume had an abiding interest in ornithology. His pioneering work in the field earned him the title ‘Father of Indian Ornithology’ and ‘Pope of Indian Ornithology’. Initiating a systematic and scientific survey and documentation of the birds of the Indian Subcontinent, he accumulated the largest collection of Asiatic birds in the world.

Starting in 1862, he collected over one lakh eggs, skins, and nests in the next two decades. He also brought out a quarterly journal ‘Stray Feathers — A journal of ornithology for India and dependencies’ in 1872 and built up a network of ornithologists reporting from various parts of India.

In the late 1870s, Hume published a three-volume work titled ‘The Game Birds of India, Burmah and Ceylon’ which he co-authored with CHT Marshall (1841-1927), a British Army Officer who collected birds in his spare time.

The chromolithographs of the birds were drawn by W Foster, E Neale, S Herbert, Stanley Wilson and others; the plates were produced by F Waller in London. (A chromolithograph typically would include dozens of layers and could have taken months to produce. Offset printing replaced the skillful, but time-consuming and expensive process of chromolithography in the late 1930s.)

An exhibition titled ‘Conference of the Birds’ comprising rare chromolithographs and engravings from the 19th century is being held in Bangalore this week.  Among others, it will feature a selection from ‘The Game Birds of India, Burmah and Ceylon’ published by Hume & Marshall. The collection will include Shoveller duck, Bengal Hawk, East African Crane, Red-backed Shrike, Ptarmigan, Petrel, Tern, Albatross, and Swallows, besides a variety of owls, peacocks and eagles. 

The prints have an intimate and endearing feel, and draw the viewer to the intricately rendered specimen and their natural world.   The exhibition draws its title from a poignant poem by Sufi poet, Farid al-Din Attar (1119-1221) in which thousands of birds undertake a journey through the seven valleys of quest, love, understanding, independence, unity, astonishment, and finally, nothingness; only thirty of them reach the end of the journey – and begin a new life of joy, contemplation and realisation.  The three-day exhibition, ‘Conference of the Birds’, will begin on January 7 at The Only Place, Museum Road, Bangalore.

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