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Bengaluru | Nature illustrators Nirupa Rao, Sangeetha Kadur and Shilpa Shree on their fascination with trees

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From paintings and jigsaw puzzles to nature journaling, artists in Bengaluru are finding different ways to express their love of local trees.

Nirupa Rao

Nirupa Rao, botanical illustrator

Ever since Rao began sketching trees, the impetus behind her work has been to familiarise people with India’s native species and subliminally bring trees into mainstream culture — by making them the focus of games, puzzles, books, and films. “For people to save trees, they have to first feel an emotion connection with them. So what I focus on is to make them culturally relevant,” she says. Rao recalls how, when she was printing Pillars of Life, a book on the trees of the Western Ghats that she had illustrated, the staff at the printers became animated when each print came out. “With every new tree, they would gather around the table to discuss whether they’d seen it in their villages, which animals frequented them, and so on.”

Rao has also helped bring out Hidden Kingdom, a book on the fantastical plants found in the Ghats (think carnivorous sundews and the neelakurunji that blooms once every 12 years), and Spirit of the Forest, an animated short about a little girl in South India who stumbles upon a sacred grove. “The hand-drawn flora and fauna featured are accurate to the habitat,” she says.

Strangler fig

Strangler fig

Recent projects: She’s developed a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, Up in a Banyan Tree. “The narrative during the lockdown was that the world had come to a standstill. But that’s a very human centric notion. A lot of other lives were thriving,” says Rao, who spent the time observing a mango tree and its visitors from her balcony. “We started birdwatching [with an app by Cornell Ornithology Lab that helps one identify birds by inputting different characteristics], and because the branches were at eye level, it felt like we were living in the tree. Spotting the various birds, squirrels and insects was reminiscent of putting together a jigsaw puzzle.” She picked the majestic banyan for her puzzle, though, because they are a keystone species (fruiting at times when other food resources are in short supply).

Plans for 2023: “I am contemplating a new book on trees, but it’s too early to talk about it. What I’m excited about at the moment is an interactive website [to be launched in the next few months] that I’m creating as a companion to Spirit of the Forest. There is a lot of research that goes into each of my projects, so I thought I’d do an online exhibit, with sketches, research notes. I’ve recreated the swamp from the film, with all the animals and plants.”

Details: @niruparao, nirupa-rao.com

Sangeetha Kadur

Sangeetha Kadur

Sangeetha Kadur, nature artist

Kadur is spending the first few days of the new year at Deva Dhare, a resort in Sakleshpur, painting tree boards. “No trees were cut in the [10 acre] property and the owners are now naming the rooms after them,” she explains.

Using the local Kannada names — like Bhilwara (Ceylon Rosewood) and Surgi (Tropical Apricot) — each board will have illustrations of the trees, and information that can help guests identify them, such as how the flowers and fruits look, with visual aids of course.

Trees, wildlife and some nature journaling

Trees, wildlife and some nature journaling

The artist’s fondness for trees began with bird watching. Identifying the trees that birds alighted or roosted on, or the fruits or flowers they were attracted to. “Initially, I could identify them only by their flowers. But then I started to observe the bark, the leaves,” says Kadur, who has illustrated several books, including a counting book for Pratham titled Every Tree Counts, which introduced children to numbers and local trees.

Recent projects: Kadur discovered that trees were the best ‘models’ for her nature journaling workshops, Green Scraps. “The best introduction is through trees — its leaves, flowers and seed pods are so unique. And the great part: they pose for you, as opposed to a bird, mammal or butterfly that’s never still.”

Plans for 2023: “The year is already exciting. I am involved with organisations and a few individuals to help them build visual narratives and information panels about nature.”

Details: @sangeethakadur, sangeethakadur.com

Shilpa Shree

Shilpa Shree

Shilpa Shree, nature illustrator

An African tulip caught Shree’s eye recently. Her quick watercolour, she feels, doesn’t do justice to it. “Is it possible to get to the heart of a tree,” she wonders on Instagram. “They [trees] confuse me; it’s a challenge to get them right.” But they also fascinate her. Much like Kadur, she got interested in trees through bird watching. “I understood how everything in nature is so strongly connected. To understand birds and their behaviour, I had to know about trees. For example, a silk cotton attracts many birds during its flowering season, which in turn helps with pollination. Such facts opened my eyes to the world of these silent giants.”

Daubanga seeds

Daubanga seeds

Recent projects: Her love of trees soon extended to the variety and forms of their seeds and seed pods. “I took up the challenge to paint 100 seeds in 100 days and post them on social media [the Champaka and Daubanga are stunning],” she says. She has since converted her drawings into a calendar and postcards because “I want it to reach as many people as possible.”

Plans for 2023: “I am creating an illustrated book featuring trees from my immediate surroundings. I hope to publish it this year.”

Details: @shilpashrees



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