'Exquisite': This illustrator brings nature to life with her brushstrokes

·8-min read
Meet botanical illustrator, Nirupa Rao.

Forests account for 31% of the total land area in the world. 

Nearly 350 million people who are nestled in and around the vicinity of forests depend on them for their livelihood. Unfortunately, a major share of the forest land has been lost in a blazing fire last year, leaving the Amazon forest under dire destruction.

Meet botanical illustrator, Nirupa Rao, who has given a human touch to nature with her brushes and strokes and kept nature alive through her meticulous paintings.

Growing up in Bangalore, during her school days, she has spent almost every holiday in some parts of the Western Ghats. Her attraction and interest in botany came from her mother’s side of the family. And her uncle Fr Cecil Saldanha was a well-known South Indian botanist too, who has led the first effort to catalog the flora in his home state, Karnataka.

A lot of conversations about natural history and photographing
A lot of conversations about natural history and photographing

Speaking to Nirupa on what gave her the calling to dedicate her career towards illustrating nature, she said, “I can’t claim to have inherited any scientific expertise from my uncle Fr Cecil Saldanha, but that legacy placed plants firmly on my radar from a young age.”

History Behind Botanical Illustrations

Simply put, it is the practice of painting plants, in a way that aims to be scientifically accurate, aesthetically pleasing, or both. The oldest known portrayals of plants were found in highly developed agricultural societies like Mesopotamia and Egypt about four thousand years ago, in the form of motifs on the walls of temples and tombs.

The earliest known botanically illustrated manuscript, meanwhile, was a medical herbal called De Materia Medica, compiled in Rome in about 60 AD by the Greek physician Dioscorides. For centuries, manuscripts such as these were the main source of botanical knowledge and were simply copied and recopied with mostly poor results throughout the Dark Ages and Middle Ages—sort of like a game of Chinese whispers, often growing further and further from the original.

The Materia Medica’s influence in the field of medical history is said to be unparalleled: e.g. a Persian translation known as the Kitab-i hasha'ish (Book of herbs), attributed to the reign of Muhammad Adil Shah II (1580-1627), the 16th-c ruler of the Bijapur.

As botany evolved as a scientific discipline, more naturalistic styles of painting evolved. Furthermore, as travel and conquest of other parts of the globe increased, so too did the fascination with entirely new, seemingly exotic flora. Naturalists, botanists, and artists began to accompany explorers on their journeys.

Idea of botanical illustrations

My definition of 'botanical art' is quite broad and loose—while I do some more traditional compositions, I experiment with a variety of formats. Earlier, I didn't know that botanical illustration was a genre of art in its own right since it is not very established in modern India. Although I liked drawing as a child, I didn't pursue art (or botany) in college”, said Nirupa.

After Nirupa’s undergraduation, she started experimenting with graphic design and illustration alongside her regular job. And when she looked back on her childhood paintings, she realised that she used to draw a lot of plants. Upon further research, she came to know of botanical illustration, which is quite well developed in countries like Japan, Australia, the US, UK, and a few other countries.

Cyrtopodium punctatum, aptly named the Bee Swarm Orchid
Cyrtopodium punctatum, aptly named the Bee Swarm Orchid

I was aware of the genre's colonial history in India (it evolved under the patronage of various east India companies, though it was usually carried out by local artists). I was intrigued by the idea of repurposing this genre for an Indian audience, to help us reconnect with our surroundings. Since I have a family background in botany, I was drawn to more unusual, native plants, rather than showy exotics”, shares Nirupa about the botanical roots of her family.

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She has been quite obsessed with the variety of vegetation that’s grown in the Western Ghats of South India. People tend to think of this region only in terms of thick green forests, but there are also dry forests, lateritic plateaus, swamps, grasslands, and so on, all of which have a place in our ecosystems since they have evolved due to the climate and geography of the region. “The more I work here, the more I learn of its complexity, and keep returning for more”, she further added.

Projects Done, Work Involved

Nirupa began working in this field around 2016. In the journey of discovering and finding new species, plants, trees that are unique in nature, she has picked up several projects. Her first big project was a collaboration with two naturalists from the Nature Conservation Foundation, Divya Mudappa, and TR Shankar Raman.

They run a rainforest restoration program that focuses on growing trees local to the Western Ghats. They wanted to visually document them in some way, which posed some challenges. The trees are up to 140 ft tall, which makes it hard to fit them in a single camera frame. Besides, the surrounding foliage is usually too dense to isolate a single specimen from its background.

This little drawing illustrates the pollination strategy of the pink lady’s slipper orchid.
This little drawing illustrates the pollination strategy of the pink lady’s slipper orchid.

These issues could be overcome with an illustration. I observed and sketched the trees on location. Even in person, you often can only see the buttress of the tree, and, if you climb further up the hill, the tree's crown rising above the forest canopy”, she stated.

The intervening portion of the tree is often shrouded in greenery. With illustrations, you can study the buttress and the crown separately, and then stitch them together, while imagining the middle portion (with the expertise of the scientists at hand).

Nirupa further added, “We compiled these illustrations, along with drawings of their fruit, flowers, seeds, and leaves, into a book called Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats, which also contains some sketches by another artist, Sartaj Ghuman, of trees co-existing beautifully with humans.”

In 2017, she received a National Geographic Young Explorers grant to create Hidden Kingdom: Fantastical Plants of the Western Ghats, a book that seeks to demonstrate how fascinating our local plants can be - from carnivores and parasites to flowers that stink of rotting flesh.

It also contains some common plants that we would all recognise—like pepper—and some that most of us don't know you can find here—like parasitic orchids. The accompanying text contains botanical trivia, ecological insights, and crafty wordplay set to rhyme. It's intended for both children and adults.

I worked on it along with my sister Suniti Rao, who wrote the text, my cousin Siddarth Machado who did the botanical research, and my friend Prasenjeet Yadav who documented the process through photography. Besides these projects, I have also illustrated five of Amitav Ghosh's book covers for Penguin India, including his latest novel, Gun Island” asserted Nirupa.

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She also collaborated with the Centre for Wildlife Studies on Wild Shaale (Wild School' in Kannada), an environmental and conservation-education program designed for rural school-going children, aimed at nurturing interest and empathy toward India’s wildlife and wild places.

Her other project is “Myristica Swamps: Living Museums”. These Myristica Swamps are found in the three peculiar regions of South India, namely, Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka State, southern parts of Kerala State, and Maharashtra's Sindhudurg district. Her work involved illustrating highly unique plant and animal species, and visualisations of cultural practices.

Amid exploring the picturesque nature and discovering inimitable species, she has shared one unique species that she discovered while in the process.

A sneak peek into one of the pages of Hidden Kingdom - a book of botanical illustrations consisting of both plants and animals
A sneak peek into one of the pages of Hidden Kingdom - a book of botanical illustrations consisting of both plants and animals

Her words: “While in the Western Ghats, I stumbled upon a plant called the Magenta Ghost flower—a rare, endemic parasitic plant which is completely white except for its bright purple petals. It doesn't have any leaves or chlorophyll and seems to defy our very definition of a 'plant'. Instead of making its own food, as most plants do, it steals nutrients mainly from grasses on the forest floor”.

Challenges, Achievements

When it comes to art, patience and determination is the key that drives an artist to think beyond the four walls. Although all these painstaking artworks look easy from the outside, in actuality it isn’t when you put your heart and soul dressed with colours on the paper.

Nirupa has faced similar stumbling blocks too. Recently, she illustrated several orchids of North America for the Nature Conservancy magazine, which is quite an achievement and challenging task too. “Detailed work puts a lot of strain on your hands. I have to give my hands an oil massage every day, and do various strengthening exercises”, she professed.

Despite the challenges, she has received several awards - Recently awarded the prestigious National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship. Also, named an INK Fellow and listed in Harper Bazaar’s list of “Indian Women to Be Proud Of.

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She also shared about one of her favourite paintings - “I'm most proud of the strangler fig I created for the Hidden Kingdom. It's based on a tree I saw in Kerala. The term 'strangler fig' refers to a particular growth habit exhibited by plants of the Ficus (fig) genus. To beat out the fierce competition for sunlight in dense forests, fig seeds are often deposited by birds upon the branches of existing trees. They start to grow from here, effectively cutting in line to get ahead. As their shoots grow upward to the sun and their roots grow down to the earth, they may strangle their host tree, often to death.

All the images are sourced with permission from Nirupa.


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