These artists craft natural wonders to boost conservation
Botanical illustrator Nirupa Rao, 30, of Bengaluru, often posts a little quiz alongside her art. Next to a blooming rhododendron, she recently said: “Do you recognise this beauty? Most wild species… are native to Asia... This one in particular is common in the Nilgiris, Anamalai and Palani Hills.” Followers (she has nearly 12,000) respond with their best guesses, or questions of their own.
The point is for people to engage and not just scroll from one pretty photo to the next, says Rao (@niruparao on Instagram).
Artists like Rao are using their art to reflect their interest in conservation, creating saleable works with an additional USP. In Murud-Janjira, Maharashtra, Nibha Sikander makes paper-cut art works that mimic birds and insects. In Delhi, Niharika Rajput makes paper sculptures of exotic birds.
Rao comes from a family of naturalists and began her watercolour botanical illustrations early. “I don’t extract plants from their habitat unless they are fallen leaves so I work with a combination of photographs, on-the- spot sketches and memory,” she says. “Animals are well represented in popular culture but ask a child to name the tree outside their window and they’d be at a loss. With my work I am trying to do for plants what popular culture has done for animals.”
Her cover artwork for the re-jacketing of five of author Amitav Ghosh’s novels, published by Penguin-Random House, reflects this too. Tucked under the gleaming coils of a serpent on her much-talked-about cover for Gun Island — a book on climate change, displacement and migration — is a flower of the oriental mangrove, native to the Sundarbans.
Rao’s own second book, an illustrated work titled Hidden Kingdom: Fantastical Plants of the Western Ghats (2019) is full of intricate representations of rare plants from one of the world’s most bio-diverse regions.
For artist Nibha Sikander, 37, drawing on the bird and insect kingdom for her card-papercut works came naturally. She lives amid biodiversity too, in the Murud-Janjira region of Maharashtra’s Konkan coast. Moths, mantises and birds are spread across her instagram account, @nibhasikander.
“Paper mimics nature in its versatility – soft, stiff, malleable and flexible, almost like wings, feathers and antennae,” she says. These works were part of her first solo exhibition, Wandering Violin Mantis, at Mumbai’s Tarq gallery in mid-2020. Her priority is art, she says, but she’s glad her work is making people think about the environment.
Artist Niharika Rajput, 29, of Delhi, makes paper sculptures of the birds she encounters in her travels — from the red-billed blue magpie in Himachal Pradesh to the black-necked crane in Kashmir. She studies their anatomy in the field and in photographs and replicates them using paper, wire and epoxy.
Rajput (@paperchirrups on Instagram) has also been conducting a multimedia annual arts festival themed on birds in Ladakh, since 2018, in collaboration with a local gallery and a Jammu-based foundation. “When I share a picture of a bird or animal with some interesting facts, it helps build information but not in a conventional way,” she says. “Art can be a great tool to educate not just children but adults as well. It tells people what’s out there and needs to be protected.”