Featured Profiles

Through The Eyes Of A Botanical Illustrator

Nirupa Roa is a Botanical Illustrator based in Bangalore, India. She works closely with conservationists and ecologists to document the region’s biodiversity. She has published two books, Hidden Kingdom: Fantastical Plants of the Western Ghats and Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats, that focus on southern India’s jungles through the eyes of a botanist. Nirupa has earned the title of a National Geographic Explorer and Storytelling Fellow and an artist-in-residence at Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Center and Museum.


Nirupa’s fascination with trees began when she was a kid, her parents are nature lovers, and her family circle is full of botanists and horticulturists. Her granduncle, the late Father Cecil John Saldanha, was a well known field botanist by profession who led the first mission to collect and catalogue the flora of Karnataka that commenced in 1978.


She recalls her childhood fondly in an interview with Paper Plans, “as soon as the holidays were upon us, my family and I would head to the Western Ghats. From when I was younger than I can remember, the grown-ups would take us cousins on trekking’ adventures’, even if we had to sit on their shoulders most of the way up. This led to an automatic association of nature with fun and freedom.”


She was introduced to the concept of Botanical Illustration by her Aunt Iris, who would regularly send them books from New Zealand, where she resided. The plant species captivated her as they were unlike anything she had ever seen before. She said, “Although, I didn’t realize it. I started botanical drawing when my aunt sent me a telephone book.” This telephone book was illustrated with the flora of New Zealand.


Nirupa soon fell in love with the plants and species in the book and ended up imitating almost every single drawing from there. While neither of her parents were artists, Nirupa and her sister were always encouraged to be creative. She recalled, “Illustration was just a skill that I picked up. We would make our own plays, sets, gudiyas, sew our own costumes and much more. I didn’t look at illustrations as a career until I made friends with the graphic designer at my first job.”


Nirupa wasn’t inclined to be a botanical artist and is neither a botanist nor a trained illustrator. She completed her education in a completely different field and has a Degree in Sociology from Warwick University in the United Kingdom. “The love for nature was always there. She had also enjoyed painting as a child but didn’t imagine a career as an artist. I had a narrow idea of who could be an artist; I thought one had to be flamboyant and spontaneous like a [Salvador] Dali or [Pablo] Picasso. I didn’t know of other ways to be an artist,” she said.


In a way, Nirupa feels her education in Sociology led her to become a Botanical Illustrator. In scrutiny of the ecological destruction around her, she thought it’s interlinked to our culture: “We no longer feel the connection with our local plants. Only when we are familiar with our plants, we will love them and protect them,” she reasoned.


When she started working, she came across some photographs shared by a Botanical Researcher, who was also her cousin Siddarth Machado. The sheer elegance of the plants and flowers in those images inspired Nirupa to pick up her paintbrush and get to work to capture their essence.


She decided to take up an online course in Illustration and adapted the techniques taught to her requirements. She researched widely on the subject and applied for the National Geographic Young Explorer grant. “I had no experience in the subject. But I had an idea and I put together a portfolio with the help of my cousin Siddarth Machado who’s a botanist, my sister Suniti Rao who wrote the text, and my photographer friend Prasenjeet Yadav. Maybe our idea of looking at plants differently, through an illustrated volume, appealed to Nat Geo,” she recalled.


She soon published her first book, Pillars of Life, collaborated with naturalists T R Shankar Raman and Divya Mudappa from Nature Conservation Foundation based in Mysuru. “The book is a documentation of rainforest trees that are iconic to the Western ghats,” said Nirupa.


Her book titled the Hidden Kingdom was an interesting take on flora in the Western Ghats targeted to appeal to anyone above the age of eight. Living in Indian cities, we barely recognize the magnificent Gulmohar trees blooming on the sides of the road. With this book, Nirupa aims to educate India’s children about the beauty that lies within our country. She said, “It is a fun yet informative book, featuring 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 if you will. I want to show Indian kids (and anyone with an open mind!) how interesting our plants can be.”


To create the book, Siddarth drew up a list of plants whose stories he felt would interest readers. The project required the team to explore the Western Ghats, study the plants in their habitats and report back to Nirupa. She would do the illustrations back in Bengaluru. “It was a lot of work,” she said, recalling the effort that went into getting the textures, shapes, size and colours of flowers and leaves as close to nature as possible. She cross-checked with botanists as well to be sure she was giving out the factually correct information.


After working on the book, she was more aware of a few common plants around her, like the basket fern: “After I illustrated it, I kind of saw it everywhere around me,” she said with a smile.


“Essentially, botanical Illustration means painting plants. It lies somewhere between science and art.” Historically, she said, it has been an essential 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 the 5th century CE and depicted comfrey, an important medicinal plant.


Nirupa’s area of interest comprises the Western Ghats, which is included in one of the world’s eight ‘hottest hotspots’ of biodiversity. The region is filled with an incredible number of diverse species of flora and fauna. She came across plants such as the Neelakurinji that flowers only once in 12 years, that covered the hillside in a carpet of purple, delicate insect trappers and parasites that contain no chlorophyll at all.


Though the art of Botanical Illustration may have lost some of its prestige after the advent of professional photography, Nirupa is attempting to bring about a comeback for this valued art.


She said, “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.”