This intense exploration of the Western Ghats elicits a question that Rao may just get used to in the future.
She has made botanical illustrations 'cool' at a time when sketching apps can make anyone an illustrator. Artist Nirupa Rao is a millennial who believes that her genre is an intersection between art and science although "it is up to the artist to breathe life into it, to communicate the surreal quality of the natural world". At the upcoming event this weekend, Rao will discuss the creative process behind her newly-launched book, Hidden Kingdom, a richly illustrated collection on the flora native to the Western Ghats. As the blurb reads, the diversity ranges from carnivores and parasites to flowers that stink of rotting flowers.
The book, Rao says, happened thanks to a National Geographic Young Explorers grant received in 2016. She roped in others, mainly her family, from sister Suniti Rao who wrote the text, botanist and cousin Siddarth Machado, responsible for accuracy and fact-checking and fellow Nat Geo explorer Prasenjeet Yadav, who documented and photographed the process. "Over four years, we travelled to various spots in the Western Ghats where Siddarth felt these species might grow-from inland swamps to thick jungles to rocky outcrops," Rao comments.
What do the Western Ghats look like to a seeker of knowledge? Although as a child, Rao had spent "almost every family holiday" out there, it was only during the process of creating the book she learned to see them in a different light. The jungle, which first appeared to her as a sea of green, now became a repository of plant species, each one a treasure. As she explains, "It was only once I started to recognise native trees and their individual importance that I realised that the mere existence of trees does not make a 'forest'. A forest is instead a 'system' that is inherently richer and stable due to its complexity." A visitor or tourist, she notes, may just miss the subtler signs of environmental degradation and the fact that the 'true' original forests are increasingly broken up or "fragmented" due to urbanisation.
This intense exploration of the Western Ghats elicits a question that Rao may just get used to in the future. Since the book is filled with intriguing native plants, which were the ones that were the most unusual? Rao has a list, from carnivorous sundews that glisten like red rubies; alien-like ceropegias that temporarily trap insects in their hollow bulbs to gigantic flowers that smell like rotting flesh and of course, an elusive rare flower. "One of my favourite moments was chancing upon a group of Magenta Ghost Orchids by the side of the road. They are completely devoid of chlorophyll and don't have any leaves. Consequently, they can't produce their own food, and rely on drawing nutrients from surrounding decayed matter. The flowers are pretty rare, so I thought my chances of spotting them at all were slim. I certainly didn't expect to see them when we stopped for a driving break."
An illustrator by choice, Rao feels that botanical illustration is the ideal combination of two different sides of her personality - "the creative and the practical" - so although she enjoys singing, playing the piano and baking, it is through this genre that she is making her inroads in to the hall of fame. She was the one chosen to illustrate Amitav Ghosh's books including his newest, Gun Island. As she readies herself for presenting the book at the annual National Geographic Symposium in Washington DC in January next year, she ponders on the rise of popularity of botanical illustration. Wouldn't a photograph say more? While admitting that both - photography and illustration - have their advantages, Rao talks of particular instances when photographing plants become difficult. A tall rainforest tree, for instance. How does all of it come in one frame? Besides that, photography cannot single out a plant nestling in dense foliage. "These issues can be solved with illustration. Illustration also allows you to c
reate an 'ideal' version of a species, drawing from a botanist's knowledge of what would best represent it." Also, when it comes to plants and its study or, to be precise, botany, it is a subject most people consider boring, Rao points out. "An artist's rendering may just humanise the subject," she notes. "The fact that someone has spent hours trying to bring out a certain texture or detail in a leaf seems to make people stop and pay attention to something they would otherwise have overlooked."
And coming to the specific subject of Western Ghats which her book terms as the 'Hidden Kingdom', Rao thinks that the book actually contains ecological insights that are relevant not only to the region but have universal application. "I think that nowadays plants are often under-valued and under-appreciated. The average child can name its top five favourite animals (and in fact, favourite cars!), but would struggle to name a handful of plants."