Published: 13th November 2018
This Bengaluru-based botanical illustrator's documentation of South India's wondrous plants will make you fall in love with nature
Nirupa Rao recently completed a book called 'Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats', published by the Nature Conservation Foundation in 2018
When you ask an illustrator who their favourite artist is, they'll probably tell you the name of the person who heavily influenced their work. But Bengaluru-based illustrator Nirupa Rao’s favourite artist changes according to her mood and at this very moment, she is in love with Japanese and Chinese scroll paintings as they are often based on nature and seasonality. This 28-year-old artist has herself been in the spotlight thanks to her own creative genius for quite some time now for her painstakingly detailed illustrations that are a combination of her affinity for nature and passion for painting.
Nirupa's first ever illustration in 2016 was that of a humble peepal leaf, which was accompanied by the caption 'practice practice'. Since then there has been no looking back for her. She has created hundreds of artworks, gained an admirable following on Instagram and won several accolades. We spoke to the full-time illustrator about what fascinates her the most about South India's flora, her latest books and her future plans. Excerpts:
What is the most fascinating feature about South India's flora?
South India is home to two incredible mountain ranges — the Eastern and Western Ghats. At the moment, my work focuses on the Western region. The Western Ghats is one of the world's eight 'hottest hotspots' of biodiversity, which means the region has an incredible level of species diversity and uniqueness. Due to its location bordering the coast of India as well as its great topographic heterogeneity, it has an exceptional diversity of life forms and vegetation types. Not only does its vast array of flora serve as a habitat for some of our most beloved animals, it is also fascinating in its own right.
Nature through the eyes of an artist: Nirupa's first ever illustration in 2016 was that of a humble peepal leaf (Pic: Nirupa Rao)
Tell us about the new book you've illustrated for that documents the Western Ghats.
Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats was conceived of and written by Divya Mudappa and T R Shankar Raman, two wildlife biologists with Nature Conservation Foundation who work toward rainforest restoration in the Anamalai Hills. They were very keen on creating a book that would evoke the grandeur of the native trees of the region, so they asked me to illustrate 30 different species and their identifying parts, such as fruits, flowers, leaves and seeds. Another artist, Sartaj Ghuman, also contributed five sketches that connect the lives of the people in the region with these magnificent trees. We opted to use illustration to document these trees for multiple reasons. Firstly, it's pretty hard to photograph rainforest trees as the dense surrounding canopy makes it tough to isolate a given tree in sufficient detail. Even while sketching them in person, they're often so tall that I would sketch the buttress from one vantage point and then climb up a hairpin bend or two to view its canopy. I sketched every tree in person and took these sketches back to Bengaluru to paint the final version, referencing a combination of memory and photographs.
Tell us more about your second book and the illustrations in it.
Currently, I'm working on a book on the fascinating plants of the Western Ghats for anyone over the age of 8. I received a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant for this project and I'm working on it along with my cousin Siddarth Machado (a botanical researcher), my sister Suniti Rao, who is writing the script, and my friend Prasanjeet Yadav, a photographer. It will feature the weird and the whacky, the carnivorous and the parasitic, the poisonous, the stinky and the unimaginably valuable — the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory of the Plant Kingdom if you will. I want to show Indian kids (and anyone with an open mind!) how interesting our plants can be. The idea for this book came to me a while ago, when I was working in the children's department of Bloomsbury Publishers in London. They created the most beautiful and magical, yet educational books for children to learn about everything from plants to insects to Roman history. Since then, I've always wanted to create content like that for an Indian context. Nowadays, children can name their top ten favourite cars, but struggle to name their favourite trees. Hopefully, this book can begin to change that.
Currently, I'm working on a book on the fascinating plants of the Western Ghats for anyone over the age of 8. I received a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant for this project and I'm working on it along with my cousin Siddarth Machado (a botanical researcher), my sister Suniti Rao, who is writing the script, and my friend Prasanjeet Yadav, a photographer
Nirupa Rao, Botanical illustrator (Pic: Nirupa Rao)
Were you trained as an artist when you were a child or later in life?
I did not study Art in college as I did my undergrad in Social Sciences. Three years ago, I did an online course in botanical illustration with a UK-based artist named Elaine Searle.
Which medium do you prefer? And what colours and which brand?
For my work thus far, I have been using water colours. I use a brand called Daniel Smith.
How long does it take you to complete one illustration?
It differs based on the subject. Sometimes, I try to represent an ecosystem itself like a swamp. Those take the longest, probably about two weeks. Trees take me about a week to paint. Since I am keen on scientific accuracy, I individually outline and paint almost all the leaves within the canopy. That way, the viewer would be able to gauge that a jackfruit has large, roundish leaves that point in all directions, while an Ironwood has long, thin leaves that point downward. The isolated elements (fruit, flowers and so on) take less time, although leaves can be quite labour-intensive due to their complex venation.
Now that photography has advanced so much and everything can be captured through the lenses, do you think botanical illustration is gradually losing its value as an art form?
I'd like to think that illustration can complement photography rather than compete with it. The more means of expression, the better. They will each appeal to different people or to different sides of the same people. When it comes to plants, I feel that since it is a subject that a lot of people consider boring, an artist's rendering humanises the subject.