The Forest For The Trees
“I’m like an interested layperson.” That’s how Nirupa Rao describes her approach to her work. Despite having no formal training in art or botany, Rao combined an inherent talent and innate love for plants to become one of India’s leading natural illustrators.
Bengaluru-based Rao grew up in a family that included botanists as well as horticulturalists: her grand-uncle Cecil Saldanha had documented Karnataka’s flora in the ’60s, collecting about 14,000 samples across 5,000 species. So, for Rao, plants were always synonymous with adventure and discovery. As a young girl, she remembers going on picnics, or “expeditions” as the adults would sometimes call them, where the kids would collect berries and explore the wilds of the Western Ghats. Even her childhood drawings often included plants.
Until a few years ago, Rao didn’t even know that being a professional botanical artist was an option — she came upon her current job after obtaining a degree in sociology and completing a stint in the field of graphic design. Five years into her new career, she already has two books to her name, has illustrated the covers of a handful of Amitav Ghosh novels, and her work will be featured in an upcoming exhibition at Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington DC.
Her first book, Pillars of Life – Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats, was published in 2018, and it was born out of a chance meeting with conservation scientists Divya Mudappa and T R Shankar Raman during a plant identification course in Kerala. Impressed by Rao’s skills, Mudappa and Raman, who run a rainforest restoration project in Tamil Nadu’s Anaimalai Hills, expressed a keen interest in involving her in the visual catalogue of trees they were working on. “It was difficult for them to collaborate with photographers, who found it tough to capture the trees that were too tall to fit the frame. The surrounding greenery was also dense, so it was hard to pick out a single tree. They saw my work and thought that maybe, the whole thing could be done through illustrations,” Rao shares. Her second book, Hidden Kingdom – Fantastical Plants of the Western Ghats, published in 2019, was something she conceived with her cousin Siddarth Machado, a botanist himself. It initially started as an idea to commemorate her grand uncle’s work by documenting the orchids of the Western Ghats, a flower he was fond of, before it evolved into a broader visual collection of regional flora that would appeal to children.
Rao’s work may appear anachronistic, but it is vital to the protection of our natural heritage. Botanical art and illustrations record the lives of species before they go extinct, especially due to threats like climate change. It also inspires people to protect what exists by spreading awareness. That’s not to say that photographs can’t do the same, but, as Rao mentioned, they do have their limitations. Also, as former executive director of the American Society of Botanical Artists Robin Jess once told the Associated Press, “An illustration can show various parts of a plant at the same time, something a photo really can’t. It can show extra details of the fruit, for example, and what it looks like bisected.”
Here, Rao discusses four of her chosen artworks, her methods, and the need to appreciate Indian flora.
The Mesua ferrea, or ironwood, is one of the first plants that Rao painted. She spotted it while visiting Sri Lanka, where it is widely found. The ironwood is the national tree of the island country, chosen for its cultural significance, natural beauty, and utility. Some say the Buddha’s first visit was to a grove of ironwood, locally known as the na tree, in the Sri Lankan town of Mahiyangana and that the next Buddha will attain enlightenment under such a tree.
Rao was drawn to it because of the tree’s flowers, which were a challenge to paint considering its petals are only white. “You’re kind of painting them with greens and yellows and negative space,” she explains. “I deliberately placed the tree leaves in the composition in such a way that I didn’t have to paint any hard edges on the petals. I could create their outline through the position of things around them.”
This was her third (and most recent) attempt at drawing the tree and one that she’s finally happy with. Earlier versions didn’t quite please her. Her arrangements of the leaves and flowers would vary with each rendering, and it is that experimentation and reworking that has become intrinsic to her work.
Rao has developed a method that makes certain she gets everything right. While first approaching a subject, for instance, she focuses on its architecture. “I pay attention to the structure of the plant. How is it holding itself up? If it is a creeper, the structure would be limper. Other plants may be spread out more. For example, if you have a mango tree in an open field, it’ll grow very differently from one growing in a dense jungle. The former will tend to be more branching, while the latter may grow straight up due to lack of space,” she says.
When she works with experts like Mudappa and Raman, Rao quizzes them on specific parts of a tree — its buttress, its branching pattern, its leaf arrangement — to ensure precision. Since all the trees belonging to one species do not always look alike, they discuss how to best capture the general identifying features of each one. Also, a specimen’s surroundings shape its individual growth pattern, so, like the mango tree that Rao spoke about, it may not be the best representation of its species.
She also sometimes integrates her observations from field trips with other resources, such as pictures from books or photos found on free online resources to create the final image. There have been times when Rao had made sketches of a certain specimen in the wild but found more captivating photos of the tree online. In such cases, she then borrowed elements from the reference image (such as the tree’s shape) and incorporated more information about the leaves, flowers and fruits from her field research. Speaking about her method of mixing references she says, “If it’s perfect to show what I want to, then why not?”
Wildlife isn’t something Rao is particularly comfortable drawing, but she doesn’t shy away from opportunities to do so. When Penguin Random House India approached her to work on the cover art for author Amitav Ghosh’s most recent book Gun Island, Rao was asked to illustrate an image of a snake that features in the plot. She also included flora from the Sundarbans where the story is partly set, so “the whole thing would be much more evocative of the landscape.”
That in turn led to her creating more cover art for the following of Ghosh’s older books: The Calcutta Chromosome, The Hungry Tide, The Glass Palace, as well as The Circle of Reason. The cover of that last title features the birds seen here. “For all of his novels, they [the publishers] had picked one naturalistic element from the story that became the focus of the cover. In this case, it was these birds, because at the end of the novel, there’s a passage that refers to birds migrating across the Strait of Gibraltar,” Rao says. For some of the cover images, she added botanical elements specially inspired by each story’s setting. These included foliage from the teak tree for The Glass Palace that explored Burma’s teak trade, or the mustard flowers that appear in The Calcutta Chromosome.
For The Circle of Reason, she drew the white stork, the Montagu’s harrier and the steppe eagle, adding a map of the Strait of Gibraltar as a backdrop. While drawing wildlife, Rao often watches YouTube videos to observe species from various angles and understand how they move. And unlike with her practice of botanical art that she usually carries out directly in watercolour, she first sketched the outlines of these birds in ink before painting them in, using Photoshop to create the background.
Rao doesn’t usually work with digital tools but sticks to pencils, paints and brushes, and she uses a special type of paper called hot-pressed watercolour paper. It’s best for the dry brush painting technique that she employs — one that requires minimal water and thin brushes, allowing for greater control and more detailed art. In contrast to that is wet brush painting, which is the more spontaneous and abstract form we associate with watercolour works.
In some ways, Rao’s art seems like the perfect fit for Ghosh’s writing, given the transporting power of her illustrations and his words respectively, and the underlying themes that they share. The folks at Penguin thought it would be appropriate to team up with a botanical illustrator because “Amitav is really environment-focused,” says Rao.
A number of Ghosh’s works — such as the fictional Gun Island and the non-fictional The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable — explore the environmental crisis, culture, history and politics at their intersections. In Rao’s opinion, Ghosh skilfully elucidates these connections in a way that readers can better understand how some of these issues play themselves out. “These are not separate boxes. For example, you can only understand the space of the environment in India today, if you understand our colonial history and current political systems,” Rao says.
These candy-coloured sundews — there are three different types found in India as shown in this Hidden Kingdom painting — might seem like something out of Willy Wonka’s factory, but don’t let their exteriors fool you into thinking they’re harmless plants. They’re actually carnivores, growing in soil with poor nutrient content and supplementing their diets with the insects they trap.
“The brightly coloured things with the tentacles are the leaves. They have a sticky secretion, which attracts small insects with its sweetness, and once the insects come into contact, they get trapped and the tentacles sort of curl up as the plant digests the insects with the help of enzymes,” Rao explains. The flowers strategically grow on thin, long stems to keep them isolated from the leaves, ensuring that potential pollinators don’t get trapped.
For most of us, the first carnivorous plant we can perhaps name is the Venus flytrap. But, it is native to North America, and we’re probably unaware that there are many carnivorous species in India itself. “Given its omission [in our textbooks], you would assume there are no carnivores found here. You only hear about these things in other areas without learning what you can find just a few hours outside Bengaluru,” Rao says.
This lack of Indian context in certain books and learning material bothers Rao. During an internship at a publishing house in London, she saw several children’s books that gave readers a basic introduction to the world of birds and plants but were primarily tailored to a British audience. She wished she’d had access to such content too — but with an Indian perspective — while she was growing up. It stoked the urge to create something similar.
“I want people to know about their own surroundings…not that there’s anything wrong with learning about other cultures and landscapes,” says Rao, adding how in light of current environmental perils, it’s a question of learning and appreciating the value of local flora. After all, it’s the only thing that is going to work for your region in an ecological sense.
Rao thinks it’s that sentiment of re-contextualising what we learn to make it relevant that may have appealed to the organisers of the upcoming exhibition at Dumbarton Oaks, which is where this painting will feature.
How do you draw a 130-foot-tall tree? That’s what Rao and her colleagues Mudappa and Raman had to figure out while working on the Cullenia exarillata, or the wild durian. The tree is a keystone species of the region and central to the ecosystem, with primates like lion-tailed macaques eating its fruit (seen up close in the painting).
Rao recalls how the team stood at the base of the tree and “looked up but couldn’t make out anything…” She further describes how “there are several trees that, because they are at the top of the forest canopy, have barks that are quite straightforward. There isn’t a lot of branching: they just want to get to the top because they’re shooting up above the other trees.”
She drew the buttress first, making notes on the texture and colour of the bark and comparing it to those of the other trees in the area. Then she sought out an elevated perch to get a better view of the tree’s crown. Eventually, Rao climbed up a nearby hill, which gave her a clear idea of what it looked like.
“You probably will never see this tree in its entirety unless you know the jungle really well. Seeing it in this drawing is one of the only ways you’ll get to see a composite,” she says, emphasising the vegetation’s density.
Picking out a tree in a thick forest is no doubt demanding, but for most of us, even noticing one in our daily lives is a challenge; many of us probably see right through urban flora.
There’s a term for this tendency to ignore trees and flowers around us — it’s called “plant blindness”, coined by scientists Elisabeth Schussler and James Wandersee in the ’90s. Rao explains that plants lack certain visual cues because they don’t move, which is why we don’t perceive them as threats. What’s more is that because of the amount and kind of visual stimulation our eyes are constantly receiving, they can’t process everything. “Our eyes prioritise what they should focus on, and deprioritise what’s not really going to be an issue, so plants just recede into the background,” she explains. Given that our eyes are programmed to recognise differences, and plants are considered “mostly all green”, we tend to straightjacket them together into a single category.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” Rao believes. “The less you know about them, the less you notice plants. And then the less you notice, the less you know. So if we break that cycle by getting people to learn more, they’ll start caring.”