There’s always something interesting around the corner, in Darjeeling. About an hour from Siliguri, we were in Kalimpong, where we came across an interesting sight – a group of children painting, guided by a very pleasant woman. What’s going on here? we asked, curious. And that’s how we met Hemlata Pradhan. A botanical illustrator trained in London she now runs an art school that does the dual job of teaching children art and also about their environment. Hemlata’s dream is to set up the Himalayan Natural History Society.
Excerpts from our chat:
You grew up in the Himalayan foothills. What’s your earliest memory?
There are many wonderful memories that comprise my childhood! Growing up in the lap of the Himalayas, I remember we used to spend most of our time in our small farm near the Relli River, Kalimpong, where we used to plant trees and other plants, play in the muddy paddy fields and stacked hays and splashed in the nearby streams which used to be full of crabs and tiny fishes! In the evenings we sat around open fire under the star lit sky, looking at the fireflies silently hovering around the nearby bushes while listening intently to local folk tales in the form of magical chants/ songs from a shaman (‘jhyakri’ ) who also worked as the caretaker of our farm. I also remember my father, a keen Orchidologist, horticulturist, an author, a botanical illustrator and a hard task master, trying to teach us the names of plants, trees, insects and birds that surrounded us and taking us out on field trips to nearby Lava and Kaefer jungles so we could observe nature at its best. All these experiences and more played a vital role in generating keen interest and fascination for the natural world.
Can you tell us a bit about the flora of Darjeeling?
Darjeeling Himalaya has an interesting topography with a great diversity in altitudes (tropical, sub-tropical, temperate, sub-temperate, and alpine zones), climatic conditions and habitat diversity. It sustains almost 4,000 species of flowering plants, including orchids, ferns, rhododendrons, primulas, countless types of flowerless plants, mosses, algae, fungi etc. One can also find a huge variety of trees like magnolias, oaks, chestnuts, cherry, maple, birch, conifers, junipers, firs etc. So Darjeeling Himalayas is definitely a treasure trove for plant lovers and enthusiasts!
How did your love for plants make its way into the pictures?
As a child I remember I was very fond of drawing anything that caught my fancy so much so that my school books used to be covered in doodles by the end of the year. When I turned eleven, I happened to chance upon my father’s field sketches and later paintings for his books on orchids, rhododendrons etc. I understood then that this was exactly what I wanted to do: to draw and paint orchids and other plants from nature in my own language to express my love and concern for the world that I grew up in. From a young child’s hobby turning into passion and now a career as a botanical artist, it has been about 30 years since I first set out on this journey thus finding myself and my purpose in life.
Your career is both unusual and intriguing. Are there many botanical illustrators in the world? What makes one choose it?
Botanical illustration is a genre that reflects the developments in art and science for over 500 years and is popular in many countries like England, Scotland, the U.S, Australia, Singapore, Malayasia and Japan. So one can easily state that there are many illustrators around the globe and with the advent of the new age, discovery of new species, conservation movements and awareness etc., a demand for botanical illustrators is on the rise every year especially in countries like India where this genre faded away and ultimately ended when the Europeans left India.
Taking up botanical illustration as a career is a matter of personal choice. For me, it started out as a hobby which turned into a serious passion and now a career that I absolutely love!
You studied at the Royal Botanical Gardens (Kew) and the Royal College of Art in London. But you decided to return to Kalimpong after your studies. What were you looking forward to doing back home?
I wanted to continue highlighting conservation issues of Indian Orchids and other plants through my paintings so as to help bring about public awareness and consensus on the plight of our planet’s magnificent heritage so that conservation measures could be taken to protect them in their habitats. I also started a school of Natural History Art where we teach children at the grass roots and the local community about various art forms involving nature and natural objects that surrounded us while promoting natural history art, education, conservation and sustainability.
Can you tell us more about the Himalayan Trust for Natural History Art (HTNHA) and your art school for children.
In order to further my dream of combining art, education, conservation and sustainability at the grassroots, I initiated a Charitable Trust called the Himalayan Trust for Natural History Art (HTNHA) in 2003 with seed funds gifted to me by Lady Lisa Sainsbury (U.K.). The Trust has been running various hands-on workshops and classes since 2011 with help from visiting tutors and volunteers from different corners of India in the field of Natural History Art. While the children 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 make close observation of nature and document them in the form of sketches, paintings, doodles, words and maps using traditional techniques, methods and materials. They are also introduced to a whole range of educative ideas and practices and how to integrate it with their mainstream subjects (like English, Science, Geography, History, Math etc.) thus supporting and promoting a holistic approach to learning that are inter-related and enjoyable. The children are also taught how to be innovative and versatile with their drawings and are encouraged to try different styles, techniques and mediums. Educational field trips form a vital part of the school curriculum. Besides art classes, we encourage different schools and institutes to visit us so that the children can interact and learn from each other bringing a sense of unity, sharing, communication, exchange of knowledge, ideas and friendship amongst them. These hands on activities have enhanced the learning process.
Over time the how come out of their shells, gaining confidence and self-belief. Their relationships at home have changed for the better too as they have become more responsible with their duties and education and the parents too are beginning to see the value of what the children are learning. This process has not only helped them build and hone their artistic skills but has also helped develop their confidence while training to combine artistic excellence with a deep respect for and the understanding of the natural environment.
What is it about the Himalayas that you love the most?
To be born in the lap of the Himalayas means to be in holy communion with mother nature every second of your life! Besides the richness and diversity of flora and fauna, ample natural resources and scenic beauty, the Himalayas also has a rich cultural, racial, linguistic and religious diversity and pattern, but unlike the indifference and strife that all this brings in other parts of the country and world, I love the fact that people in the Himalayas have learnt to live as one, in love, peace and brotherhood. I also love the simple, humble, informal and uncomplicated lifestyle here.
What has life been like since you moved back to Kalimpong?
Painting of course took an absolute back seat as I began to spend all my hours into developing the art school and although I missed it dearly, the fact that this very knowledge would be passed on to a new generation kept me motivated. Since it was the first time that we (the tutors) were reaching out for children at the grass-roots, the first step was for us to re-learn and re-educate ourselves in order to penetrate the blockades that the children had built over the years in their defense against a society that could not see beyond their underprivileged state. After this it became an easy task to establish a strong bond and share much more than art with them. As the children slowly began to open up and look beyond their boundaries they soon realized that there was much hope and freedom in art and creativity and with this came self confidence and the will to do better. There has been no stopping them ever since and life has been a wonderful experience of learning, creativity, field trips, exhibitions and interactive collaborations for each one of us at the art school.
You talk about bringing awareness about the Himalayan flora. What challenges do they, and the Darjeeling ecosystem face?
In 2002, it was heartrending to see large areas of trees 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 in the Himalayan foothills. Thousands of orchids and other plants of great scientific and aesthetic interest which form parts of a complex web of life in the valley were eliminated without a second thought. In a situation like this, it is not just the Himalayan flora but the whole ecosystem that gets ruthlessly disrupted. But major threats to nature are not just road and dam building, urbanization, clearing of primary and secondary forests, forest fires etc. I believe the greatest and most potent threat of all is the human mind which conceives these projects for the welfare of humanity, but in execution destroys the very fabric of our lives. I am afraid the beauty of the Himalayas will soon be a thing of the past if unrestrained development like in the Teesta River Valley and other places in the Himalayas are allowed to carry on.
Do you feel fatalistic about it?
It is true that there have been tremendous, heart wrenching, and unrecognizable changes that have transpired in Kalimpong (and the entire Darjeeling Hills) be it social, economic, political or ecological. But not all is lost for, even as these changes are taking place and is inevitable, it is also helping to directly/ indirectly generate awareness amongst the people especially the younger generation about our dwindling heritage and its consequences. This in turn is helping them to pay closer attention to their long forgotten roots, cultures and traditions that once upon a time originated from their deep bonding with nature and all things natural! Many young people from hills and elsewhere who have felt the hills were calling out to them are coming together to contribute and volunteer towards the education, training and betterment of the people here. All this and more I personally believe, is a hopeful first step towards healing the hills. The momentum only needs to keep building and we need to keep encouraging theses positive changes!
What’s a day in your life like?
Before the setting up of the art school, I used to be able to spend most of the day (sometimes even up to 12 hours at a stretch) with my paper, paints, plants and music, with no other distractions. For the last six years though, I had to take a sabbatical from painting as the art school took up most of my time. Today, with the senior students working more independently, I have once again begun to paint and although I don’t get as many hours like before, I feel happy that I am back to my brushes, paints and paper.
To create a painting is a beautiful journey of dedication, patience, adventure, discovery and meditation. But before I put all my observations, thoughts and experiences on final paper, I spend long hours in the forests/ fields/ plant nurseries sketching the plants and habitats, making notes, preparing colour charts etc. This preliminary stage of studying the plant in its totality is I believe, very crucial towards a successful painting later on. There is nothing like observing nature first hand, soaking in the life forms, the sensitivity, the colours and ‘feel’ of the subject matter (s) intimately. Love of the subject and bonding with them play a vital role and this I believe leads me in my creativity. People have always asked me how I manage to paint the intricate roots, hairs and mosses etc, and I have always told them that it was beyond my comprehension as to how I do it ! 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!
The featured banner shows Hemlata studying the habitat of Diplomeris hirsuta. Hemlata Pradhan can be contacted by email hemlata.pradhan (at) gmail.com.