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In 2002, Hemlata Pradhan was returning home to Kalimpong in the eastern Himalaya region of India, after completing her master’s in natural history illustration at the Royal College of Art in London. She drove the 41 miles from Siliguri to Sikkim on National Highway number 10, with hills on one side of the road and the Teesta River flowing in parallel on the opposite side. This highway serves as a vital lifeline, connecting people from Sikkim and Kalimpong with the rest of the country. She recalls her shock as she observed her surroundings after having been away: “I found numerous trees had been cut down for a dam on the Teesta River at Kalijhora.”
Pradhan couldn’t help but think of the lasting impact this dam would have on her local ecology. It was the moment when she resolved to preserve the floral world of her hills with her paintbrush.
Bhutan, Nepal, and northeastern India—including Kalimpong—are part of a transboundary complex in the Eastern Himalayas called the Kangchenjunga Landscape. It forms a part of what scientists call the ‘Himalayan Biodiversity Hotspot’—one of the biologically richest landscapes in the region.
For the past two decades, Pradhan has dedicated her life to capturing the beauty of eastern Himalayan flora on canvas. Her exquisite paintings of orchids and rhododendrons have been showcased in exhibitions around the world. Her and other botanical illustrators’ work offer a potential solution for preserving the region’s flora in the face of climate change.
“With climate change and fast infrastructural development, there is an ecological change in the hills of Darjeeling and Kalimpong, and as an botanical illustrator, I feel it is important that we sensitize our younger generation to the importance of conservation of the local flora and fauna,” says the 49-year-old artist.
Pradhan’s passion for botanical art blossomed during her formative years as she grew up observing her father, Udai C. Pradhan, an orchidologist and botanical illustrator who has authored several books on the plants. “Conservation was a vital lesson that I learned from my father, who used to teach us the names of plants, trees, insects, and birds that surrounded us,” she says. “He also took us on field trips to the nearby jungles of Lava and Kaefer, allowing us to observe nature at its finest.”
In 2011, Pradhan founded the Himalayan Trust for Natural History Art, an institution located in Pudung Busty, a remote village beside the Relli river. “I teach a group of rural children, primarily girls from marginalized backgrounds, the wonders of art and the natural world,” she says.
Similarly, when discussing the conservation of orchids, rhododendrons, and other endemic flowers of the eastern Himalayas, 82-year-old MC Rai, a resident of a remote village in Sandakphu within the Singalila Ridge, emphasizes the importance of preserving these mountain blooms. The flowers hold a profound significance in the cultural and religious traditions of the Indigenous community residing in the region.
“For the Indigenous Kirat Rai community, orchid, also known as sunakhari, is a crucial flower used in offerings to our gods,” Rai says. “Likewise, people living in the villages near the Indo-Nepal border brew a strong alcohol infused with flowers of rhododendron called guras ko raksi. This potent drink is used in important life ceremonies like marriages and other important social gatherings,” shares the former school teacher, who says he has witnessed the changing biodiversity of his region in his lifetime. “Orchids are losing their host plants due to tree felling for development, and rhododendrons, locally known as guras are also losing their natural habitat,” he laments.
Around 600 kilometers west of Kalimpong, Nepalese botanical illustrator Neera Joshi employs watercolors to bring to life the distinctive Himalayan flowers such as rhododendrons, orchids, and magnolias on canvas. She is recognized for her significant contributions to the study of the local flora, including her involvement in “Flora of Nepal Volume III,” which features numerous botanical line drawings for scientific articles.
“Visual communication plays a crucial role in conservation,” Joshi says. “[Botanical paintings] can be used in educational programs, botanical gardens, and museums to raise awareness about the diversity of plant life and the importance of conservation. These illustrations can engage the public and inspire a deeper appreciation for plants and their role in ecosystems.”
For nearly two decades, Joshi, now 55, has been teaching botanical illustrations to artists and scientists, believing that her teaching is contributing to the preservation of the region’s floral kingdom through art.
“At first, I was unfamiliar with botanical illustration as a distinct art form,” says Finnish botanical illustrator Jari Laukka, who has been studying under Joshi’s tutelage since 2020. “However, upon discovering Neera’s impressive portfolio, I was eager to have her as my teacher. During a visit to her studio, I had the opportunity to witness her artwork firsthand, and I was genuinely impressed by her expertise and meticulous attention to detail, qualities essential in botanical art.” He is now preparing an exhibition of his botanical paintings.
“In contrast to other art genres within fine arts, where artists often have the freedom to be more subjective and emphasize aesthetics,” Joshi says, “botanical illustration serves the purpose of providing a comprehensive representation of a plant, allowing for easy identification. It demands accuracy and patience, which can be a challenge for new artists.”
And the stakes are high, too.
Rhododendrons and orchids hold great cultural significance in the local communities, but they are under threat. Rhododendrons are undergoing premature blooming due to climate change, while orchids are suffering from widespread illegal trade, harvested for their medicinal properties.
“Art can serve as a valuable conservation tool,” says Rajendra Yonzone, assistant professor in the department of Botany at Kolkata’s Victoria Institution, “true conservation can occur naturally if we allow these elements to thrive in their natural habitat.” Yonzone, a native of Kalimpong with an extensive background in the study of the flora of the eastern Himalayas, emphasizes that the main challenge arises from unregulated construction and infrastructure development. These activities often occur without adequate planning, environmental impact assessments, or management strategies in place. To facilitate the balance between conservation and development, she says it is crucial to integrate scientific expertise and careful planning into the process.
Yonzone acknowledges the intricacy, discipline, and hard work involved in botanical art, but he also highlights its limitations. “In today’s technology-driven world, digital display through photography can offer a quicker and more efficient means of preserving plants and their scientific details.” Photographic documentation of plants is faster to capture, easier to store, and simpler to transfer, he explains.
However, Hemlata contends that botanical illustration excels in capturing and emphasizing details that might prove elusive in photos. “Elements like cluttered backgrounds or any plant deformations encountered when photographing a plant in its natural habitat can be completely omitted in a painting.” Botanical illustration, she says, serves a unique purpose in identifying and depicting plants more intimately than photographs.
Diwash Gahatraj covers a wide range of issues, including the environment, marginalized communities, climate change, food, and farming. He strives to connect the dots between science and the community, telling stories through thorough reporting backed by facts and data. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, South China Morning Post, VICE News, The National News. Fair Planet, Rest of the World, Atlas Obscura. He is based in Siliguri, India.