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To Paint And Bloom

To Paint And Bloom

Bikram Grewal, birdman and keen collector of natural history art, chats with accomplished botanical illustrator Hemlata Pradhan. The founder trustee of the Kalimpong-based Himalayan Trust for Natural History Art (HTNHA), which is presently setting up the Himalayan Institute of Natural History Art. Pradhan’s exquisite works have won her the Royal Horticultural Society’s gold medal as well as the World Orchid Conference (WOC) Gold medal amongst other national and international honours. She has a special interest in orchids and channels her art to strengthen flora conservation.

What is the first memory you have of dabbling with art?

From the time that I began to learn the alphabet, I remember my father, a keen orchidologist, horticulturist, author, botanical illustrator and a hard taskmaster, trying to teach me the names of the plants, trees, insects and birds that surrounded us. He would take us on field trips to the nearby Lava and Kaefer jungles so we could observe nature.On most weekends, we used to hike down to our small farm near the Relli river, Kalimpong, where we would plant trees, play in the paddy fields and stacked hay, splash in the nearby streams, which used to be full of crabs and tiny fish, and listen intently to all kinds of local folk tales in the form of magical chants from a shaman or jhyakri who worked as the caretaker of our farm. He also taught us about medicinal plants found locally. I remember drawing anything that caught my fancy and my schoolbooks used to be covered in doodles by the end of the year. All these experiences played a vital role in cementing my keen interest and fascination for the natural world.

The first time I painted flowers was when I was about 11 years old. I did not realise then that there was a hidden passion in me for painting plants. When I was about 13 years old, I chanced upon my father’s field drawings of orchids and rhododendrons, which served to inspire and motivate me. I realised then that this is exactly what my heart desires: to draw and paint plants. In the beginning, it was more of a hobby but that slowly changed into a serious passion and now a career. I began my journey by painting single flowers of Cymbidium orchids in all their gorgeous hues – apple greens, shades of pink, yellow, white and maroon... and each one I painted made me crave more. And so, my zest for painting plants began in earnest!

Was it a struggle to establish yourself as a botanical artist?

My struggle to become a botanical artist began when I completed my 10th standard. There were no courses offered in natural history illustration in any of the art colleges in India, which was indeed sad because India, once upon a time, had a rich legacy of many wonderful and proficient plant and animal illustrators. Thus, I joined Kala Bhavan, Visva Bharati, Shantiniketan, West Bengal for a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art in 1993. I thought I would specialise in painting, but since my grades were higher in graphics (printmaking), my professors thought it best that I continue with that. So, there I was, deeply in love with botanical art, but getting a degree in printmaking because I had no other choice!

Nevertheless, printmaking was fun and I enjoyed all the new mediums such as lithography, etching, and serigraphy that I had a chance to experiment with. I especially loved etching because it requires meticulous handling – quite similar to botanical art techniques – and found that I could actually portray plants well using this medium. In the meantime, I desperately began to hunt for institutes that offered a short course in botanical illustrations. This is when I learnt about the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, U.K. The institute was offering diploma courses in botanical illustrations to Margaret Mee scholars from Brazil, but when they saw my keenness they agreed to offer me a place! So, when I was preparing for my final year Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts, I once again applied for and was given a second grant by the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation in 1998. This enabled me to complete my Post-graduate Diploma in Botanical Illustrations from Kew Gardens under two eminent plant illustrators, Christabel King and Dr. Judy Stone. This later opened the door to the Royal College of Art, U.K., for me to complete my Master’s in Natural History Illustration and Ecological Studies under Late Professor John Norris Wood, a wonderful natural history artist and conservationist.

Paphiopedilum venustum, native to India, has flowers that resemble ‘brain pouches’. Brightly-coloured leaves make this one of the most beautiful plants in the orchid world, even when not in flower. Illustration: Hemlata Pradhan.

What prompted you to paint orchids and other plants in their natural habitats?

Becoming a member of the Indian-Subcontinent Regional Orchid Specialist Group of the IUCN/ SSC (International Union for Conservation of Natural and Natural Resources/Species Survival Commission) opened my eyes and deepened my awareness of our dwindling natural heritage. ‘As an artist, how can I contribute towards plant conservation?’ was the question that lingered in my mind.

While I was away pursuing my Master’s in 2000-2002, large areas of trees had been felled, huge portions of hills cut away and unique spots of natural beauty irreversibly damaged by the Teesta Hydro-Dam Project in north Bengal, so close to the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary. Thousands of orchids and other plants of great scientific and aesthetic interest were eliminated without a second thought. I was heartbroken to see the ravaged hills upon my return home!

These realities made me acknowledge that these wonderful sights would soon be a thing of the past if unrestrained development, like in the Teesta River Valley and other places in the Himalaya, carried on. It made me realise where my responsibility lay as a botanical artist and as someone passionate about nature. It became my urgent passion to observe plants in nature and document them as I found them in their habitats.

My aim in doing so is to highlight them as extremely-important subjects for conservation, immortalise plants on paper for all times to come, assist conservation biologists in their work, help bridge the gap between art and science and to raise public awareness of our flora and fauna.The works that I have exhibited over the past decade help to highlight the rare and unique species of orchids and other plants that I have seen and observed growing in and around Kalimpong, Darjeeling and the Sikkim Himalaya. It is my hope that these works will bring viewers joy and kindle their interest in the conservation of these irreplaceable treasures.

What is the secret behind your creative process?

Taking my sketch books and art materials along and spending long, joyous hours in forests, fields, and plant nurseries is as important to me as adding the final crucial touches to a painting. There is nothing like observing nature first-hand, soaking in the life forms, the sensitivity, the colours and ‘feel’ of the subject and its surrounding habitat intimately. I avoid working from photographs as much as I can. I also practice a lot of blind drawings in order to bring flow into my sketches. Thus, most of my paintings have been developed from field drawings, close observation, notes and the live plants that surround me.

People ask me how I manage to paint intricate roots, hairs and mosses, and I always say that how I do it is beyond my comprehension! Some have even called me selfish for not sharing the ‘tricks of the trade’! But at that stage and point of detailing, I guess you become so ‘intimately bonded’ to the subject that you become the subject itself and the hand simply does its job! Observation and practice are easy to explain, but how does one articulate the meditative state and the higher consciousness working hand-in-hand?

What is your preferred technique and medium?

Painting plants in their habitat is a slow and painstaking process. A single painting can take me up to a year or more to complete. I usually begin by studying the subject to be highlighted first, and making several sketches as well as scientific drawings to know the subject inside out. Then I go on to study other plants that are growing in its habitat. These could be mosses, ferns, trees, or mushrooms. I make notes too of the location, soil, rocks, stones, climatic conditions and so on. After completing my research, I work on composing my piece, tracing and then eventually putting the composition on to the final sheet before painting. Although a difficult medium, I prefer using watercolour as it helps bring out the softness of the plants very well. I use both wet and dry brush techniques, depending on the stage of the painting. Beginning with lighter hues, I keep working until I attain the right depth of colours. All detailing comes towards the end when I begin to use the tiniest of brushes. That is where the ‘donkey patience’ mantra is required completely! I am also very fond of using pen and ink and sometimes combine pen and ink with watercolours.

Do you draw inspiration from any artists?

Where inspiration is concerned, I simply love going through works by the old masters! From among contemporary artists, Pandora Sellars’ paintings have led me to believe that perfection can be attained using paint and a brush! I also love the delicate paintings of Mieko Ishikawa from Japan. Beyond botanical art, I once received a gift from my parents of some beautiful and intricate miniature bird studies painted on sheets made of camel bones. I keep them in front of me when I paint because the intricate lines and colours are simply astounding! And last but not the least, music I believe does play the biggest role in all my creations!

A small orchid with a solitary white flower and single leaf, Diplomeris hirsuta usually grows on moss-covered rocks. It took the artist a full year of field trips and studies to create the art work. Illustration: Hemlata Pradhan.

Can you tell us about the Natural History Art School that you have established in Kalimpong?

Besides painting plants, my dream was to establish a school for Natural History Art where I could teach children at the grassroots about various art forms involving nature, while promoting environmental consciousness. The major threats to nature in our country are not just road and dam building, urbanisation, clearing of primary and secondary forests and forest fires. I believe the greatest threat is the human mind, which conceives these projects for the welfare of humanity, but in execution destroys the very fabric of our lives.

Thus, to further my dream of combining art, education, conservation and sustainability at the grassroots, I started a charitable trust called the Himalayan Trust for Natural History Art in 2003 with seed funds gifted to me by Lady Lisa Sainsbury (U.K.). The Trust has been running various hands-on natural history art workshops and classes for the past six years with help from visiting tutors and volunteers from different corners of India. While students attend regular schools during the day, they visit the art school in the evenings, weekends and every major holiday. The children are taught how to closely observe nature and document it in the form of sketches, paintings, doodles, words and maps using traditional techniques, methods and materials. This process has not only helped them build their artistic skills but also helped develop their confidence while training to combine artistic excellence with a deep respect  for and understanding of the natural environment.

What are your plans for the future?

I would like to continue highlighting conservation threats to Indian orchids and other plants through my paintings. I hope to create public awareness on the plight of our planet’s magnificent heritage so that conservation measures can be taken to protect them in their habitats.

I would also very much like for the art school to one day become a full-fledged institute completely dedicated to natural history art so that children who are deeply interested in the natural world can find a place and opportunity to explore their interests under one roof.

Children from the Himalayan Institute of Natural History Art, which the artist helped establish, work on a mural using natural colours. Photo: Hemlata Pradhan.

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVII No. 4, April 2017.


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Meenakshi Subramaniam

April 10, 2017, 01:23 AM
 Very interesting interview of a genius. Love what you are doing for our country's precious flora, Hemlata! You surely inspire us all.