BENGALURU: Amitav Ghosh’s latest book Gun Island is being judged not just by its content but also by its cover, the design of which has been done by Bengaluru-based artist Nirupa Rao. The botanical artist, who didn’t study art at university, but began drawing seriously after her graduation, discovered that botanical illustration is actually a well-established field in the West, and in some Asian countries like Japan and South Korea. “This gave me the impetus to apply those techniques to the Indian context,” says Rao, who works closely with trained scientists to ensure accuracy.
Rao was approached by the design department of the publishing house, which was keen to incorporate botanical illustrations into the cover design. “Nature and environment play such strong roles in all of Ghosh’s books. Since it’s such a high-profile book, everything around it was top secret. I only received a small excerpt to read, in order to get a sense of the themes,” she says, revealing that the design team decided on the central motif of a snake, which figures prominently in the story. They provided Rao the typographic layout, and asked her to wrap the snake around the lettering.
“Since the novel is set in the Sundarbans, I was keen to include some flora typical of the area too. I provided them with a few sketch options, and they, along with Ghosh, settled on the design that finally made the cover,” says Rao.
The 20-something artist worked on the cover in November 2018, first drawing the snake with black ink, and then colouring it in with watercolour. “The flora were painted separately, so that we could play around with the placement as we pleased,” she says, adding that she hasn’t interacted with Ghosh directly.
After completing the Gun Island cover, the publishing house decided to re-jacket four of Ghosh’s older novels – The Circle of Reason, The Calcutta Chromosome, The Glass Palace and The Hungry Tide – along the same lines, and Rao was assigned the job. “All of them follow a similar layout – a central motif surrounded by flora derived from the novel’s setting. They feature birds, a hilsa fish, an elephant and a Bengali fishing boat, respectively. I’ve just finished working on the last of these covers,” she says.
A lot of Rao’s projects require site visits, and illustrations for the book Pillars of Life by Divya Mudappa and TR Shankar Raman were among them. The book, which documents the trees of the Western Ghats through 80 hand-painted illustrations of the tree forms, their flowers, fruit, leaves and seeds, required Rao to study the trees in the jungle and make preliminary sketches, which she then converted into paintings in her studio. “Leaves take the longest, since their venation is very complex yet subtle. I might take about two days just to paint a single leaf, but finish a flower in a few hours. It all depends on the degree of detail required,” she says.
At present, she is wrapping up work on her next book, Hidden Kingdom – Fantastical Plants of the Western Ghats, which received a National Geographic grant. “I’m heading to the United States for a program at Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oakes Research Institute. We will look at the intersection between botany and humanities, in other words, the role plants have played in human culture, and vice versa,” she says.