As a child, Nirupa Rao spent several holidays in the hills and forests of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. During those trips, she developed an affinity for nature, which first grew into a passion and then into a profession.

Rao, 28, has been documenting South India’s flora on Instagram in painstakingly detail – from the everyday vegetation to the exotic plant life. Her first illustration in 2016 was of a humble peepal leaf, accompanied by the caption “practice practice”. Since then she has drawn hundreds of artworks, gained an admiring following, and won several laurels.

The Bengaluru resident was a recipient of the National Geographic Young Explorers Grant 2017, and her work has been featured in Chickpea, Harper’s Bazaar India apart from Medicor, a publication of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. She has also worked on two books – the second one will be out in 2019 – that document the flora of the Western Ghats.

“Though my childhood wasn’t exactly artistic…my two sisters and I loved being creative,” said Rao. “Between us, we would sing, write silly books and direct plays. We would draw posters for our home concerts, illustrate our novels and design our own makeshift sets.”

Family legacy

Observing and documenting flora runs in Rao’s family. Her granduncle, the late Father Cecil John Saldanha, was a field botanist who led the first mission to collect and catalogue the flora of Karnataka, starting in 1978. A decade earlier, he documented the flora of Hassan, in South Karnataka, with the Smithsonian Institution.

“Their research base was my grandfather’s farm in Hassan, and my mother has memories [of] watching the entire operation unfold,” Rao said. “Her colourful stories have made me associate botany with adventure. I’m certainly romanticising what would have been a long and laborious venture, but through my illustrations I am trying to communicate the passion that leads scientists to dedicate their lives to plants.”

'Vernonia arborea'.
'Vernonia arborea'.

Rao completed her graduation in sociology from Warwick University in the United Kingdom. It was at this point that she came across some photographs shared by her cousin Siddarth Machado, a botanical researcher. The sheer beauty of the plants and flowers in those images inspired Rao to pick up her paintbrush.

Except for a short online course in botanical illustration (a scientific approach to drawing flowers and plants), which taught her the basic techniques of the genre, Rao is largely self-taught.

What is her take on such a classical and sometimes rigid method? “Essentially, botanical illustration means painting plants. It lies somewhere between science and art.” Historically, she says, it has been an important profession as plant illustrations often accompanied medical recipes. The oldest surviving manuscript with plant illustrations is the Johnson Papyrus. It was painted in Egypt in 5th century CE and depicted a comfrey, an important medicinal plant at the time.

Her work often involve hours, even days, of backbreaking processes. “For my book on the magnificent trees of the Western Ghats, I would sketch the trees on site, and then paint them when I came home to Bengaluru. Photographs were insufficient, as a lot of trees were too tall to be captured in one frame. While sketching them, I would have to study the buttress of a tree from one vantage point, and then climb up a hairpin bend in the hillside just to see its canopy. Because of the dense surrounding canopy, it was difficult to isolate a single tree in a photograph. So illustrating the trees in person helped that process.”

Though her painting style resembles that of artists such as Sydney Parkinson, where it departs significantly is the objective: while Parkinson’s illustrations were a way of showing the flora that he was discovering in foreign lands to people back in England, Rao is hoping her work will inspire her readers’ interest in India’s own native flora. Her medium is water-colour and she uses Daniel Smith paints, Raphael brand brushes and hot-press water-colour paper, which, she says, is smoother than cold-press.

Capturing Bengaluru

Part of Rao’s work involves capturing the unique and often disregarded plant life of her own city. Many of the trees in Bengaluru, such as the gulmohars, rain trees and African tulips, she says, are exotic flowering trees planted by erstwhile rulers along avenues. They have been naturalised over time and developed an ecosystem of their own. The native sampige, mango and neem also feature prominently in her work.

“There is a gorgeous, ruby-red plant called the Tropical Sundew [a carnivore], which can be found in rocky outcrops outside Bengaluru,” she said. “I’m illustrating it for the children’s book. It has little tentacles on its leaves that trap insects and digest them.” The flora of Cubbon Park, Lalbagh Botanical Gardens and campuses, such as the Indian Institute of Science and the Gandhi Krishi Vignan Kendra, never fail to inspire her. She even found a gigantic Strangler Fig tree at the National Gallery of Modern Art, which she is hoping to sketch soon.

Rao’s area of interest includes the Western Ghats – one of the world’s eight “hottest hotspots” of biodiversity, a region with an incredible number of diverse species. She has come across plants such as the Neelakurinji that flower once in 12 years, covering the hillside in a carpet of purple, delicate insect trappers and parasites that contain no chlorophyll.

One of Rao’s books is the just-released Pillars of Life. In it, she has illustrated the rainforest trees of the Western Ghats, in collaboration with Divya Mudappa and TR Shankar Raman of the non-profit Nature Conservation Foundation in Mysore.

The second is a yet-to-be-named children’s book on plants from the Western Ghats, for which Rao received a grant from National Geographic. The book, she says, features “the weird and the whacky, the carnivorous and the parasitic, the poisonous, the stinky and the unimaginably valuable – the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory of the plant kingdom.”

Though botanical illustration may have lost some of its salience after the advent of photography, Rao says, she is attempting to make it relevant again. “Even if you are not inclined to study the venation of a leaf, if you see a painting of it you might look a little closer. It is a lens through which you can view an everyday object anew.”