Turning a new leaf

Artist Nirupa Rao   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Adding to the vibrant community of illustrators in Bengaluru is Nirupa Rao, a botanical illustrator. The young artist has just brought out her first book, Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats in collaboration with Divya Mudappa and TR Shankar Raman of Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) that commissioned the book. The book documents 30 native species found in the bio-diverse hotspot.

“Earlier we had knowledge and information about our flora and fauna passed on orally,” says Nirupa. “This has not been the case of late. A child can rattle of the names of 10 cars but not 10 trees. It is important to know about these things because our survival depends on them.” Nirupa says the book has elicited an overwhelming response. According to the artist, it could be a result of fatigue from urbanisation and realisation of the damage to the environment. In the book, Nirupa has rendered 80 sketches of 30 lesser known indigenous species from the rainforests of Western Ghats such as figs - strangler fig, conifer - Nageia and ficus trees.

The trees were chosen by Divya and Shankar, naturalists and conservationists who accompanied Nirupa on all her trips to the Ghats. “I went there once every two months and would do a rough draft of about six species. I would return and do the final work. With some trees, the challenge was to see them in their entirety from one point. So you had to view it from different vantage points. We would go to hairpin bends and see the tree. For instance, Elaecarpus Tuberculatus or Rudraksham, one of my favourite trees, is a tall tree with a massive buttress and a triangular canopy,” recalls the artist adding that the tree is a complete ecosystem in itself. “At each level I saw birds, squirrels, lion-tailed macaques.”

Other favourites of Nirupa’s include members of the ficus genus, a good source of food and shelter to animals and birds in the wild. “They are keystone species and literally, pillars of life. Their loss causes a serious damage to the ecology,” ruminates the young illustrator.

Nirupa didn’t study botany. She completed her degree in Sociology from Warwick University in the United Kingdom and pursued a short online course in botanical illustrations. The Bengaluru-based artist started illustrating botanical life in 2016.

While nature has always been a part of the visual vocabulary of various art schools, most notably miniatures and other folk art forms, it was dealt with for a decorative purpose. “Mansur, a 17th-century Mughal painter and court artist was commissioned by ruler Jahangir to paint 100 flowers of Kashmir but that was also influenced by the European ideas” says Nirupa. For botanical illustrators, the real legacy in the discipline has been left behind by Europeans who documented botanical life meticulously for scientific and artistic purposes.

Botanical illustrations began as an artistic genre in the 15th century but they were being done even before that to document medicinal species. Codex Vindebonensis, made in Constantinople dating back to 512 AD, is believed to be the oldest surviving illustrated manuscript. It is now in the National Library at Vienna. Though photographs overpowered botanical illustrations, the latter is making its way back. Blame it on the emergence of solid talent and creativity in the field in the last few years and the presence of avenues to showcase it.

Like Nirupa gained knowledge about trees while working on the project, she also learnt what a true forest is.

“To a layman, everything might look healthy but that is not true. Mere existence of greenery is not good enough. A forest should be versatile and not have monoculure. There shouldn’t be any invasive species. Also, real forests are increasingly getting fragmented by plantations,” says Nirupa who is now working on her second book of botanical illustrations for children.

(To order the book, visit


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Printable version | Mar 4, 2021 1:45:05 AM |

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