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Of sundews, strangler fig and elephant foot yam: Nirupa Rao's Hidden Kingdom is an ode to flora of Western Ghats

5 months ago 5
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In this fortnightly column, Pages From The Wild, Urvashi Bahuguna looks at accessible, engaging books from around the world, on the environment and ecology.


Coined by botanists Elisabeth Schussler and James Wandersee, the term “plant blindness” refers to the human tendency to not observe and pay attention to the plants in their environment. Supported by a National Geographic Storytelling Grant, Hidden Kingdom: Fantastical Plants of the Western Ghats sets out, in a small but representational way, to counter that disinterest. The flower of the elephant foot yam that mimics the smell of rotting meat to attract pollinators and the fig whose flowers are ensconced inside the fruit are among the plants that feature in this slim, beautifully produced book. Nirupa Rao, a Bengaluru-based illustrator, has hand-painted selected flora from the mountainous forests of the Western Ghats. The endeavour owes its research to her cousin Siddharth Machado and their friend Prasenjeet Yadav with whom she made multiple field visits that yielded the field sketches, photographs and memories which inform her illustrations.

The Western Ghats, for those who aren’t familiar, are vast, cross six Indian states, and are difficult to access. The species in Hidden Kingdom are not necessarily common or easy to find. With Nirupa’s illustrations, and her sister Suniti Rao’s accompanying words, these unusual plants are demystified and allowed the space they need to be understood in their singularity. Two kinds of parallel text are employed — classical rhyming that makes the book enticing for children and simple scientific prose that broadens the readership to include adults. There is an ease engineered into Hidden Kingdom with its spare backgrounds and interactive text that facilitates interest and retention. There is a palpable delight in these pages that is contagious — more so because the delight is grounded in facts.

Cover for Hidden Kingdom

Loosely inspired by a British children’s series from the 2000s (supported by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) which included titles such as My First Book of Garden Birds and My First Book of Garden Bugs, the book started as an attempt to “create similar content for an Indian audience, based on Indian landscapes,” says Nirupa.

Her granduncle, Fr. Saldanha, was a field botanist who catalogued the flora of Karnataka in 1978 — the first mission of its kind. She regularly refers to his work — contained in and digitised by the JCB Herbarium managed by the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore — in her own. In 1968, he classified the flora of the Hassan District in Karnataka in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution. It was his first major assignment and it prompted the Government of Karnataka to request him to assist in the collection and classification of the entire flora of the State, resulting in the collection of about 14,000 plant specimens belonging to over 5,000 species of plant groups.

She says, “Work like his is the foundation of botanical science in India — I am simply trying to make it relatable to the general public.” While a herbarium would probably be useful to someone already interested in the subject, she is attempting to “introduce the uninitiated to the splendour of the plant kingdom.”

Illustrator Nirupa Roy

One of the most striking pages contains a composite drawing of the various kinds of Sundews (flowers which are often carnivorous) found across the Western Ghats. Different from the other spreads which favour minimalism, the page brings into focus the remarkable diversity within a genera. This place had initially been reserved for Utricularia reticulata — a different carnivorous plant with a dainty blue flower that Nirupa had seen in Goa. She wanted to compare and contrast that plant with one or other Ceropegia species, all of which are very alien-like in shape and colour. But going through Siddarth's field photos, she knew that they couldn’t leave the Sundews out. “Placed all together,” she says, “they looked like sugar candy at Willy Wonka's factory. That's why I chose to depict them all together, even though Drosera lunata isn't really found alongside D. burmannii and D. indica. Of course, we were sure to clarify that in the caption.”

Eventually one of the Ceropegia species made it into the book — though choosing among them was hard. She ultimately settled on Ceropegia spiralis which they spotted near Bengaluru. Although visually ominous, Ceropegia interestingly isn’t a real carnivore: it only temporarily traps insects to ensure pollination occurs.

She drew upon a number of different sources for various facets of her book. Shruthi Rao and Rohan Chakravarthy’s book on figs, The Secret Garden, was a reference as were Colin Tudge’s Secret Life of Trees and Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature because she loved the sense of adventure contained in their prose. Aesthetically, she says, she had a number of influences “from traditional and contemporary botanical art, to classic nursery rhyme books, to books like the wonderfully illustrated New Sylva by Gabriel Hemery and Sarah Simblet.”

(L) Sundews; (R) Strangler figs. From Hidden Kingdom

She intends to have Hidden Kingdom translated into regional languages for distribution in schools in the Western Ghats. She hopes that the book will enable school-children to see “plants in a new light, as active, complex creatures that are truly fascinating.” While individual species have been highlighted in the book, they’ve tried their best to “depict them in the context of their ecosystems, and how they interact with other plants, animals, birds and insects.” The book stresses an inter-dependency in the landscape with birds feeding on figs and bees and beetles drawn to specific plant species that depend on them. Their hope is that a new generation of school children will “derive a sense of how inter-connected all of this is, and how things are affected when one crucial piece of the puzzle is removed.”

She also sees value in encouraging people who might be interested to practise drawing and writing in response to observations of nature. Her toolkit is pretty simple: paper pad with hard backing, mechanical pencil for plotting the coordinates of the drawing, eraser, pen for sketching, and a ruler for making relative measurements. She finds that nature journalling becomes a way to connect with the outdoors and increase one’s mindfulness and one’s capacity to observe and appreciate. Once she has sketched a tree, she never forgets it. For those looking to gradually build their knowledge of plants, she’d suggest keeping a consistent log of drawings in a single journal in order to compare and contrast observations over time. That, admittedly, is a lesson she’s still learning herself.

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