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People often assume that plants aren’t very interesting because they don’t move around. But I have realized it’s this very rootedness that makes them so creative, forcing them to evolve ingenious ways to adapt," says Bengaluru-based botanical artist Nirupa Rao. Since 2016, she has been painting plant species of the Western Ghats. Her striking watercolour illustrations have been published in books related to the conservation of rainforests—and as cover art for Amitav Ghosh’s novels, such as Gun Island, The Glass Palace and The Hungry Tide.

Rao’s drawing of ‘Elaeocarpus munronii’, a plant species found quite commonly in the Western Ghats.
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Rao’s drawing of ‘Elaeocarpus munronii’, a plant species found quite commonly in the Western Ghats.


In July, she won an year-long fellowship programme funded by the National Geographic Society (NGS). Her project focuses on the Myristica swamps, a freshwater swamp forest believed to be millions of years old, in a part of the Western Ghats in Kerala. The aim is to create a visual history of the diverse and enchanting flora and fauna of the region.

A watercolour illustration of ‘palash’ (Flame of the Forest). “It is a tree with great cultural significance in India. The flowers, for instance, were used to prepare the traditional Holi colour ‘kesari’ until fairly recently,” says Rao.
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A watercolour illustration of ‘palash’ (Flame of the Forest). “It is a tree with great cultural significance in India. The flowers, for instance, were used to prepare the traditional Holi colour ‘kesari’ until fairly recently,” says Rao.


This is not the first time she has been associated with National Geographic. She received a Young Explorers grant from them for her book Hidden Kingdom: Fantastical Plants Of The Western Ghats, published in 2019. “It seeks to demonstrate how fascinating our local plants can be: from carnivores and parasites to flowers that stink of rotting flesh," she says. The pages come alive not only with the lambent illustrations, but also the accompanying text set to rhyme depicting the forest’s unique ecology. Although it has a few images of animals, the artist sought to draw attention to plants that often go unnoticed.

Rao at the Myristica swamps, which are named after a species of wild nutmeg found in India. Here, she is photographing the nutmeg’s seed.
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Rao at the Myristica swamps, which are named after a species of wild nutmeg found in India. Here, she is photographing the nutmeg’s seed.


Rao, who has a degree in sociology, is not a trained botanist or artist. But her affinity with plants, and painting them, took root early. Hers is a family of botanists, horticulturalists and enthusiastic gardeners, and a large part of her school holidays was spent escaping to the hills of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Her journey as a professional botanical artist began roughly four years ago, when she collaborated with two naturalists, Divya Mudappa and T.R. Shankar Raman from the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysuru.

Rao’s drawing of the pepper plant prevalent in the Western Ghats.
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Rao’s drawing of the pepper plant prevalent in the Western Ghats.


The naturalists wanted to document, with photographs, majestic ancient trees for a rainforest restoration programme. But the dense jungle of the Ghats made it impossible to capture the entire height of 140ft-tall trees, like theCullenia exarillata andElaeocarpus tuberculatus, in one camera frame. When photography failed, painting took over and Rao stepped in. “I observed and sketched the trees on location. Even in person, you can often only see the buttress of the tree. If you climb further up the hill, only the tree’s crown appears above the thick forest canopy. The intervening portion of the tree is often shrouded in greenery. With illustrations, you can study the buttress and the crown separately and then stitch them together, while recreating the middle portion with the expertise of scientists," she explains. These illustrations, along with luminous drawings of the trees’ fruit, flowers, seeds and leaves, were compiled in a book titled Pillars Of Life: Magnificent Trees Of The Western Ghats (2018). She adds, “It also contains some sketches by another artist, Sartaj Ghuman, of trees coexisting beautifully with humans." 

Rao’s drawing of the hornbill. The bird plays an important role in the ecosystem of the Western Ghats. It eats the fruits and disperses the seeds that help plants to germinate.
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Rao’s drawing of the hornbill. The bird plays an important role in the ecosystem of the Western Ghats. It eats the fruits and disperses the seeds that help plants to germinate.


Rao wants to continue using botanical art as a medium to regenerate interest in the natural world and keep her focus on the Western Ghats—a region she cares about deeply. “I believe we will only strive to protect what we love."


Rao’s drawing of ‘neelakurinji’. She says it’s a shrub found in the Shola forests and once covered the Anamalai Hills, Cardamom Hills and Nilgiri Hills during its flowering season. Now human dwellings occupy much of its habitat. When the shrubs flower, they do so in unison, covering entire hillsides in carpets of blue. But this spectacle happens only once in 12 years.
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Rao’s drawing of ‘neelakurinji’. She says it’s a shrub found in the Shola forests and once covered the Anamalai Hills, Cardamom Hills and Nilgiri Hills during its flowering season. Now human dwellings occupy much of its habitat. When the shrubs flower, they do so in unison, covering entire hillsides in carpets of blue. But this spectacle happens only once in 12 years.
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