BENGALURU: Soon after graduating from Warwick University, when botanical illustrator Nirupa Rao was interning in the children’s department at Bloomsbury Publishers in London (which has published the likes of Harry Potter), she was surrounded by books, such as British Birds, published in collaboration with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, books on animals BY the London Zoological Society – all of which she wished she had had growing up.
“Something that would have taught me about where I lived,” says 29-year-old Rao, who recently released her book, Hidden Kingdom, which comprises botanical illustrations and features plants native to the Western Ghats — from carnivores to flowers that smell like rotting flesh, and even familiar species like pepper, and the more obscure ones like the colourless Ghost orchid.
“The book is an attempt to create one like those I had seen at Bloomsbury, but rooted in the Indian context. And since people like me missed out on this in our childhood, it’s actually intended for people of all ages,” says Rao, who applied for a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant in 2016, and then brought on board the rest of her teammates: Suniti Rao, her sister, who wrote the text; Siddarth Machado, her cousin, a botanist, who was responsible for the fact-checking; and her friend and fellow National Geographic explorer, Prasenjeet Yadav, who helped photograph and document this process.
“First, Machado and I created a shortlist of plants we thought would be representative of the region, but which also had a good story to tell. The idea was to change peoples’ perception of plants as passive and boring, by showing them the ingenious ways in they operate. Machado, Yadav and I went on multiple trips to the Western Ghats – visiting inland swamps, thick jungles and rocky outcrops – to see these plants in person, and experience their habitats. Yadav documented this process. Then Suniti and I came up with a narrative arch, and worked on the text while I started the painting,” says Rao, who worked on the book for four years.
They periodically showed the manuscript to both kids and adults, and gauged their responses. “For instance, we decided to write the text in rhyme, as we realised it not only set a light-hearted tone for a fairly serious subject, but also created a momentum that kept people reading. Rhyme is also a great memory aid, and people seemed to remember the facts better,” says the illustrator, who has worked on Pillars of Life - Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats, a collection of 30 native trees that are important to the region, and on the cover for Amitav Ghosh’s latest novel, Gun Island. She has also re-jacketed four of his older novels.
While the book will be released at the Hyderabad Literature Festival next month, it will also be launched at the National Geographic Symposium in Washington DC in January. She will also be exhibiting some of her paintings at Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Institute and Museum in Washington DC next year, which she says is occupying most of her time at present.