“Plants are not the sexiest subject, but illustrations capture the most ideal representations of plant life,” says Nirupa Rao.

This illustrator from Bengaluru is working on a book of trees found in Western GhatsInstagram/Nirupa Rao
Features Art Wednesday, September 26, 2018 - 19:14

Illustrating inanimate objects might be an easy task, one might think. But artist Nirupa Rao will tell you there’s more to it than what meets the eye. Based out of Bengaluru, Nirupa began illustrating botanical life only in 2016 when her cousin Siddarth Machado, a botanical researcher, showed her pictures from his escapades. Inspired by the sheer beauty of trees with their plumage in varying shades of green, Nirupa decided to illustrate them.

“Early works by Albrecht Dürer, a 15th-century German Renaissance painter, Marianne North, a Victorian biologist, are very inspiring. I also like artists Amrita Sher-Gill, Abanindranath Tagore and photographer Viviane Sassen’s works. Chinese and Japanese ink paintings are highly inspiration too,” shares Nirupa.

Botanical illustrations, we learn, began as a way of documenting medicinal species. Earliest records of botanical illustrations were seen in medicinal texts that documented plant species based on their medicinal value. The oldest surviving illustrated manuscript is the Codex Vindebonensis, made in Constantinople, that dates back to 512 AD. The manuscript is now in the National Library at Vienna. This work is mainly a copy of the De Materia Medica, compiled in Rome by the Greek physician Dioscorides in about 60 AD.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Nirupa Rao (@niruparao) on

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Nirupa Rao (@niruparao) on

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Nirupa Rao (@niruparao) on

Her illustrations of 30 remarkable tree species from the forests of Western Ghats can be seen in the book Pillars of Life published in July this year. Nirupa shares that she began working on the book in 2016 along with two naturalists and conservationists, Divya Mudappa and TR Shankar Raman. Published by Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, Pillars of Life records some of the lesser-known indigenous tree species from the region and has nearly 100 paintings of the 30 different tree species.

But Nirupa did not study to become an artist, least of all a botanical illustrator. Having completed her degree in Sociology from Warwick University in the United Kingdom, Nirupa only signed up for a short online course in botanical illustrations to learn the nuances of the art.

As someone who isn't an expert in the field, Nirupa sought the help of a botanist to help her understand the process better. For about two years, Nirupa would make frequent trips to the Aanamalai forests along with Divya and Shankar. She’d stay for about a week and bring back sketches of five different trees to work with.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Nirupa Rao (@niruparao) on

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Nirupa Rao (@niruparao) on

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Nirupa Rao (@niruparao) on

“Capturing the trees can be a daunting task. Photographs don’t always help. You cannot capture the entire tree in one photo. Also, I needed a botanist with me, since other plant species too grow on trees. You should be able to tell what is and what isn't a part of the tree. Also, you might have to observe the tree from different vantage points,” shares Nirupa.

While Krateuas, a 1st century BC Greek physician, is widely considered as the father of botanical illustrations, and such records in India are relatively new. And although India has a longer connection with ayurveda (plant-based medicine), the art form picked up only during the times of the Mughal Emperors, especially during the rule of Jahangir and Shah Jahan.

“Ustad Mansur was a 17th-century Mughal painter and court artist. Commissioned by Jahangir, he had worked on an album, painting 100 flowers of Kashmir,” says Nirupa.  Another important contribution came during the reign of Shah Jahan. The portrayal of plants as part of architectural decorations can be seen in the carved stone and pietra dura work in buildings like the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort in both Delhi and Agra.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Nirupa Rao (@niruparao) on

Naturally, with the advent of photography, things did take a backseat with respect to botanical illustrations. So why do it at all? “I’ve been asked, why bother to paint when you can photograph it? Actually, illustrations create the ideal representation of how a specimen should look. Also, with illustrations you can show what it should look like during different stages of its lifetime. Plants may not the most sexy subjects, but it does help to have another medium. I think there is no point in comparing the two, or making them compete,” opines Nirupa.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Nirupa Rao (@niruparao) on

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Nirupa’s journey has been highly eventful with plenty of new lessons. Illustrating these giants can be a sacred experience as well. “While working on the Elaeocarpus Tuberculatus (Rudraksham), I noticed plenty of animals on it. The tree is a habitat in itself. And the tree was so huge, it’s top disappeared into the sky. It felt very sacred,” she says.

Nirupa also says carnivorous plants are lesser-known species in India. “We would’ve learnt about the Venus flytrap, pitcher plant, etc., but not about the native carnivorous plants. We do have them in Bombay and Bengaluru, especially in the laterite plateau of the Deccan. The location explains the presence of such plants. In order to supplement the poor nutrition that they receive from the soil, they end up eating insects,” says Nirupa.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Nirupa Rao (@niruparao) on

Having received a National Geographic grant, Nirupa is currently working a book for children. “It is more of a cross-genre book that’s both for children above the age of eight and for adults. I’m working on the charismatic plants of the Western Ghats. The book will have plenty of illustrations and will also have stories,” she says.

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