At the Hyderabad Literary Festival last weekend, amid the many panel discussions and debates, a botanical illustrator quietly made her presence felt.
Bengaluru-based Nirupa Rao was at HLF to launch her second book, Hidden Kingdom - Fantastical Plants of the Western Ghats (₹1250). The book was in the making for three and a half years, and follows her first book Pillars of Life - Magnificent Trees of Western Ghats .
Nirupa confesses that she is neither a botanist nor a trained illustrator. She studied sociology from Warwick University, United Kingdom. The love for nature was always there. She had also enjoyed painting as a child but didn’t imagine a career as an artist. “I had a narrow idea of who could be an artist; I thought one had to be flamboyant and spontaneous like a [Salvador] Dali or [Pablo] Picasso. I didn’t know of other ways to be an artist,” she says.
In a way, she thinks her education in sociology led her to become a botanical illustrator. Observant of the ecological destruction around her, she felt it’s interlinked to our culture: “We no longer feel the connect with our local plants. Only when we are familiar with our plants, we will love them and protect them,” she reasons.
- Nirupa Rao has also illustrated Amitav Ghosh’s new book Gun Island and the publishing house Penguin, liking her work, commissioned her to add botanical illustrations to re-jacket four of the author’s earlier books — The Glass Palace, The Circle of Reason, The Hungry Tide and The Calcutta Chromosome.
Her parents are nature lovers and there are botanists and horticulturists in the family circles. Nirupa’s vacations during her childhood were to jungle lodges and they would spend time trekking.
Nirupa decided to combine that love for nature with her urge to do something about plants, in book form. “The botany we study in school is a dry subject. I thought it would be interesting to have an illustrated book that would get people of all age groups interested in plants and trees,” she says.
She took up an online course in illustration, and adapted the techniques to her requirements. She also applied for the National Geographic Young Explorer grant. “I had no experience in the subject. But I had an idea and I put together a portfolio with the help of my cousin Siddarth Machado who’s a botanist, my sister Suniti Rao who wrote the text, and my photographer friend Prasenjeet Yadav. Maybe our idea of looking at plants differently, through an illustrated volume, appealed to Nat Geo,” she recalls.
Nirupa’s first book Pillars of Life was in collaboration with naturalists Divya Mudappa and T R Shankar Raman of the Mysuru-based Nature Conservation Foundation. “The book is a documentation of rainforest trees that are iconic to the Western ghats,” says Nirupa.
For Hidden Kingdom , Siddarth drew up a list of plants whose stories he felt would be of interest to readers. The team then went on explorations to the Western ghats, studied the plants in their habitats. Back in Bengaluru, Nirupa would do the illustrations. “It was a lot of work,” she says, recalling the effort that went into getting the textures, shapes, size and colours of flowers and leaves as close to nature as possible. She cross checked with botanists as well.
Working on the book made her more aware of a few common plants as well, like the basket fern: “After I illustrated it, I kind of saw it everywhere around me,” she says with a smile.
For more on Nirupa’s work and her books, check nirupa-rao.com