Meena Subramaniam has been painting all her life. What she is known for, are canvases that are vivid, bright, and almost real landscapes of nature. They don’t feature any people – just the flora and fauna she sees in real life, and obsesses over till she is able to learn all that she can about it and puts it down in colours.
Meena was recently awarded the TN Khoshoo Award by Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) for her pioneering work in the field of science communication. Her artwork reflects biodiversity – majorly birds, butterflies and plants – from many parts of India, but largely from the Western Ghats. The award acknowledges Meena’s contribution to conservation through art.
But how do her paintings contribute to conservation? To understand that, it is important to know what Meena’s art reflects. “My art focuses almost entirely on the natural world around us. The compositions are a blend of my own exaggerated fantasies of the landscapes I have experienced, with real subjects from in and around a particular locale,” she describes her artwork on her website.
Elucidating her style to TNM, she says, “When I see a bird, or a flower, or a butterfly that catches my attention, I cannot stop thinking about it till I know what it is, till I paint it. It keeps me up at night. I start with researching the area I saw them in; try to identify them from the biodiversity that’s local to the spot.”
Garden of Gods 2
Meena says that a lot of her work is shared on social media. In her experience, it gets people intrigued and interested in nature. “People have often told me that even though they are locals of the area, they didn’t know that the region had a particular songbird before they saw my painting,” she shares.
Over time, she has majorly come to do commissioned paintings. “A lot of the clients are well to do, are interested in nature and the environment, but do not have the time or means to spend as much time there,” she explains.
When nature meets fantasy on canvas
Looking at Meena’s paintings, one wouldn’t guess that painting flora and fauna didn’t come to her naturally. The Bengaluru native used to do portraits. When she moved to the lower Palani Hills and Kodaikanal in the late ‘80s, she started noticing the evergreen ecosystem and was completely taken by it.
Around the same time, Meena met Father Mathew, a Jesuit priest from Trichy, whom she describes as a great botanist. “I used to visit him in his office and would show him all these plants I found interesting. He would identify them and tell me about the species, the family it belonged to,” Meena says.
She also started growing many flowering plants and vegetables herself. “I’d be a gardener if I wasn’t a painter,” she says.
When she started drawing plants and the butterflies, there was no one to teach her, nor did she have access to the internet in those days. She would often go to the St Joseph’s College library in Trichy to identify and read about the dead butterflies she found.
Frustrating as it was, Meena persisted, and her first break came around 2002-03. Someone who ran an art gallery in Thekkady, Kerala, where Meena now lives, asked her to do a painting to be displayed there. She painted some huge palm leaves, butterflies and such, and it got sold for a huge amount. And around 2012, Indian BIRDS, a magazine, featured one of her paintings on its cover page.
“That was the time I realised I had some talent, and I could paint professionally. But it still took a few years to be able to do that,” Meena says.
The Forest Family 2
She started painting biodiversity on large canvases. The environment around her and travel also helped. “Thekkady is a verdant area, and the Periyar Tiger Reserve is just four kilometres from where I live. Plus, I travel a lot – the northeast, getting lost near Munnar, hiking in the Western Ghats, trying to find new plants, birds and habitats. I would come back and paint what I remembered,” Meena says.
“I would paint these idealistic scenarios, my own compositions while being as scientifically accurate about the biodiversity in them,” she adds.
Meena’s final goal for her art reflects her passion for nature as well. “I want to paint as many of India’s threatened ecosystems, birds and plants as I can and create enough canvasses as records of these areas and how they were at a particular point in time. I want to leave behind the art that people can use as visual tools – instead of just photographs and images of different plants and animals. The paintings are a record of what that ecosystem looked like.”
Paintings and their photos courtesy: Meena Subramaniam