A novel illustrator

Updated: Jun 30, 2019, 08:21 IST | Aastha Atray Banan

The artist behind Amitav Ghosh's surreal new book cover, says when it comes to getting inspired, all one has to do is just look around

A novel illustrator
The illustration on the cover of Gun Island

People like to refer to my work as hyper realism, but I don't think so," says botanical illustrator Nirupa Rao, who is the talk of the art world, because of her enchanting illustration on Amitav Ghosh's new novel, Gun Island. The book cover, which has a swirling snake, adorned with flowers from the Sundarbans — where the book is set — has a photographic quality. "I don't see my style as photo realistic. I would rather describe it as surreal or lambent [glowing]. And isn't that true of nature as well?," asks the 29-year-old from Bengaluru.

Her description isn't misplaced. Her work for the cover of Gun Island, and three of Ghosh's re-jacketed books — mangrove leaves and a dainty boat on the cover of The Hungry Tide, a fish wrapped in pages with Bengali script for The Calcutta Chromosome and migrating birds on The Circle of Reason — are as dream-like, as they seem real.

Gun Island talks of climate change, displacement and unstoppable transition. The idea came from Penguin Random House India's design head, Gunjan Ahlawat, and Rao later came on board. "Nature and the environment hold a prominent place in Ghosh's works, so the Penguin team decided they would be well represented by botanical illustrations. I was given an excerpt to get a sense of the themes, and their design team settled on the motif of the snake, which is central to the novel. They sent me the typographic layout, and I worked with that, wrapping the snake in around the letters. I added flaura from the Sunderbans to brighten it up. They then decided to use a similar style to re-jacket his older novels."

Nirupa Rao in her studio
Nirupa Rao in her studio

The illustrator, who has studied sociology, and only decided to take up illustration seriously four years ago, says that the turning point came when she collaborated with her cousin, who is a botanist and worked on some sketches. "I always loved drawing, but never studied it. But I was into nature, because there are so many botanists in my family. Then, I did an online course, and worked on my first book, Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats, in collaboration with Divya Mudappa and TR Shankar Raman," she says.

Unlike countries such as Japan and South Korea, where the profession is an established one, in India, she is among the handful, experimenting with it. The artist, who confesses she spends most of her time in museums when she travels, says since nature is all around, especially in cities like Bengaluru, there is abundant inspiration. "Even a little sapling coming out of concrete is inspirational. You just have to pay attention to what's around you." A fan of French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin and old Japanese paintings, Rao thinks her strengths lie in getting the details right. "My work is informed by regular field visits into the jungles, though of course I also supplement these with online references. The point is to be as accurate as possible."

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