Way back in January 2014, I walked to the lush green lawn next to the Bandstand in Cubbon Park and joined a bunch of people who were all seated on the soft green grass. I had volunteered to contribute my time to manage social media posts for the first edition of Neralu, an urban tree festival, and this is where all the volunteers met up, every Sunday. At the head of the group sat Sangeetha Kadur, assigning names to tasks on a checklist, speaking gently, smiling often. This was our first meeting, but I had heard so much about her art, and had seen and admired many of her paintings. The following year, Sangeetha and I worked more closely to put together the second edition of Neralu. I watched in awe as she meticulously curated every detail and visualised how the event spaces would look. Large parks and giant auditoriums turned into blank canvases on which she added layers of colours and props, transforming the mundane to festive. A couple of years later, I attended a nature journaling workshop where she did the reverse. She picked up a small seedpod, and helped us observe every curve, angle and edge so that we get all the details right in our sketches. For all this and more, Sangeetha continues to be one of my favourite artists.
Over email, phone calls and long chats, I spoke to Sangeetha about her passion for nature art and love for wildlife.
Have you always been an artist? When did you first realise that you wanted to be a professional artist?
I did grow up with a zest for art; I had crafty hands and I loved to draw. After much thought, and backed by a keen enthusiasm for the arts, I enrolled into a degree program in Fine Arts at the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath. While I tried to hone the skill professionally, I still didn’t know what the future had in store for me. It was after a chance encounter with a wildlife artist during my final year at art college, that I could envision the possibility of making a career in wildlife art as well. Combining my two strong passions, wildlife and art, seemed like an organic and natural choice.
What are your earliest memories of your art? What are the first things you drew?
We had many nature encyclopedias at home. Back then, most encyclopedias were filled with illustrations and not photographs, and I enjoyed perusing them. I vividly remember sketching from those books. I used to copy birds from my brother’s Salim Ali bird guide too. In the early 90s, my mother enrolled me into a postal art program in which I received art lessons by post. It had a number of activities and exercises that I had to work on and send back by post. Diligently, all my artworks would be checked and mailed back with corrections, suggestions and remarks. I’m sure I drew all the typical drawings that any child would make, from flowers to birds to sunsets and seascapes.
Your father was an entomologist and brother is a renowned filmmaker. Did their interest in nature have any influence on you?
Most definitely. I grew up in a family that loved nature, and I didn’t realise how and when nature became such a big part of me. On many weekends and holidays my cousins and I were herded off to various wilderness parks in Karnataka. An uncle’s farm in the forested outskirts of Bangalore was almost like home to us. Get-togethers were filled with adventure stories from the wild. My dear entomologist-father always had a ton of stories to share – how bee and ant colonies are run by the Queens so efficiently and not the males, how moths and butterflies are different, how cockroaches evolved before the dinosaurs, and so on.
The family’s influence set off my brother on his own adventures, and his love for birds, snakes and the wild grew on me as well. I have watched him nurture a small silk cotton sapling into a huge tree that he was absolutely protective about, watched him build his own big fish pond in our backyard and care for many injured animals and birds that were brought home for refuge. Some days there would be snakes under his bed, other days an injured Little Grebe swum in our big water tank, and on another day a huge injured owl sat on his desk! I was witness to all this and more. So, I guess it’s not very surprising that I finally carved out a career in nature myself.
Could you tell us a bit about the mural you worked on in Bandipur?
Each room in the Jungle Lodges & Resorts property in Bandipur had a large mural painted on the wall, all on the theme of wildlife . It was during my final year in art college in 2005, when I was out on a birdwatching survey in Bandipur that I met the artist Sunita Dhairyam. She was creating a huge mural of a leopard in one of the cottages. The meeting left me inspired and motivated.
Little did I know that a few months later, I would also be painting in one of the cottage rooms at Bandipur. A memorable project, indeed. It was not just my first ever solo large mural painting, but also my first ever wildlife painting project – a key project that set me off on a rendezvous with wildlife and art.
I still recall how excited and nervous I was about this project. A 10×15 feet blank wall stared back at me. I was assigned to paint the Spotted Deer. I had to think of a composition, a suitable habitat, visualise it realistically and paint it true to life! It seemed like a humongous task. I had painted large murals before along with artist friends, but never to this scale and detail. Nevertheless, working with large quantities of paint and big brushes was fun. I couldn’t have asked for a better project to get me started on this wildlife art journey back in 2005.
Another mural that comes to mind is the one of the monitor lizard. How does one even begin to visualise artworks of that size and scale?
The monitor lizard painting was a commissioned work and much of the design was visualised through long discussions with the client who had a certain composition in mind already. He wanted a life sized Bengal Monitor Lizard flicking its tongue in the air, and angled in a certain way to show its long tail prominently, while overlooking the whole landscape. Half my job was done in some sense, but I had to not only get the lizard anatomy right, but also visualise this scene true to life.
The Spotted Deer mural project of Bandipur was 10×15 feet, and the monitor lizard painting was just 3×5 feet. Comparatively smaller, yes, but by no means was this a small effort. The amount of detail this painting demanded continues to baffle me. It took me many weeks to work on the intricate pattern of the scales of this life sized reptile. To understand its anatomy, I practised by making many large rough charcoal sketches of the reptile while referring to a whole bunch of photographs shot from various angles. I visited the zoo to make many more sketches from life. I also got an opportunity to observe the dead specimen of a smaller monitor lizard at the BNHS specimen collection which helped me a great deal in understanding the scale pattern of the lizard and its feet. I spoke with reptile experts who shared their inputs about the anatomy as my work progressed. Having travelled to dry and arid monitor lizard habitats earlier had its perks too. I couldn’t imagine the composition without the Euphorbia cactus and the tall grass growing alongside.
Knowing the animal, being familiar with its habitat and behaviour always helps in depicting a species in the most effective way.
Your hummingbird project has earned you international repute, with a gorgeous book to boot. How tough is it to work on a collaborative project of that scale? Please tell us about your experiences around that project.
The hummingbird project will always hold a special place in my heart. This is the project that transformed my somewhat crude artworks into finer works of art, laid a strong foundation and definitely aided as a stepping stone into the world of natural history illustrations.
It was a long-drawn-out project, 10 years in the making, with many challenges at every step. To begin with, I am from India and had never seen hummingbirds in person. However, later on, while I was in the US for the project, I got my first glimpse or two of this feathered jewel. I will forever be grateful to John O’Neill, a veteran wildlife artist, who sat me down and painted a hummingbird in front of me and opened my eyes to all the little meticulous details to keep in mind. Painting these exquisite little flying jewels for a big coffee table book demanded a lot of research, patience, effort and a whole lot of discipline.
Each plate needed about 3-4 days of getting acquainted with the bird, the plant, their habitat, their measurements, features, key characteristics, forms, colours and their behaviours. Making a bunch of key sketches, composing and then finally painting them would take each of the artists anywhere between 12 to 20 days. There were many days when we were stuck without much information on the bird or the plants, until our researcher would resurface with valuable inputs for us to continue our work. Days and months went by, and at the end of 4-5 years, after many rounds of reviews, revisions and rework, three artists – Raul Andrade, Vydhehi Kadur and I – completed painting the collection. We had finally gathered 127 species of hummingbirds for the book.
Apart from the artworks for the book, the team at Gorgas Science Foundation (GSF) had to assemble the written content for the whole book, lay out a book design and raise more funds for publishing. After an endless bunch of reviews and trying to perfect the book, it was finally ready for print. In 2016, our labour of love, the large format coffee table book, Hummingbirds Volume 1, was off the press and started making its way to hummingbird lovers all around the world!
You’ve been closely involved with the Holematthi Nature Information Centre in MM Hills. Could you tell us about the centre? Did you get to work with local communities too, while you were there?
The plan for the Nature Information Centre adjacent to the MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuary was envisioned by Sanjay Gubbi (NCF). He had already been working in this landscape and with the local communities for many years. I was assigned the task of using art to establish a community space that could raise awareness among the local audience and highlight the importance of the MM Hills landscape, its flora and fauna.
As an artist and designer, I helped visualise this space, draft design plans and shape up the little building into a Nature Information Centre. This was the first time that I had taken on a curatorial role. I built a team to work with. Every element was being illustrated and painted either manually or digitally. We tried to build beautiful visual narratives that can capture the minds of the people and create an impact. Through art, we tried to blend the gap between facts and science, and all along, tried to weave an aesthetic appeal to the designs. The project was intense and overwhelming, and it was a wonderful experience to work with a number of researchers, artists, interns, volunteers and Mr.Gubbi’s enthusiastic team to bring this space to life.
The nature centre is bilingual, with primary focus on Kannada, so that it can cater to the local audience. As envisioned, the Holematthi Nature Information Centre has become a community space and Mr.Gubbi’s team regularly engages with neighbouring schools, villagers and forest staff to instill a love and respect for their wild neighbours and surroundings. They also take this opportunity to highlight conservation issues, and encourage various stakeholders to take pride in their natural heritage and protect it.
You were one of the driving forces behind the citizen collective, Neralu. Could you tell us a bit about your experience in putting the festival together?
Neralu has been one of my most gratifying experiences ever and I’m so happy and proud to have been a part of it. The way a small concept grew into such a big city-wide festival is still unbelievable. The support, enthusiasm and love we got from the people of Bangalore was exceptional.
I’ll never forget the weekly Sunday meets at Cubbon park at 3pm, near the Bandstand. This was an attempt to open it up to the public and welcome anybody who wanted to volunteer their time to work towards a common cause. We were completely a volunteer-driven initiative with each of us taking on roles big and small. We dreamt up the craziest ideas and strived to make them happen. The team was fantastic. The number of hours that went into planning every bit of the festival were insane. While there was one team putting together cool infographic boards about trees, another was busy creating beautiful posters, banners and signages for the festival. The administrative team worked constantly to seek permissions, send out tons of emails and set up the content for websites and social media posts. It was action-packed.
Tree walks, talks, audio walks, documentary screenings, music, dance, art, school projects, games, photo and art exhibitions – we created a platform for everything related to trees. During the second year of the festival, we organised tree walks in different localities around Bangalore. We spread out further and had mini-Neralu events in different locations like KR Park, Doddamavalli Katte and even the Cubbon Park Metro Station (in the third Neralu event), rather than focusing on one central location. We didn’t just want people who love trees to attend the festival, but strived to take it to where people were and make them celebrate these silent giants with us. The festival ran on the genuine passion for trees and the objective was to try and make (almost) every citizen of Bengaluru, a tree lover!
Your flora and fauna illustrations must require extreme accuracy, and by extension, a lot of research. How do you go about planning the research?
In order to paint flora and fauna true to life, one needs to observe, think and interpret like a naturalist or scientist. Research is a core part of all my nature art drawings and illustrations. Usually, 3-4 days to a week go into reading, planning, getting familiar with what and who I’m painting, making rough sketches and planning my compositions.
A scientific illustration demands accuracy. From the size, colour and various features, everything needs to be precise. For both flora and fauna, field observations or a direct encounter is usually the best, as they provide a three-dimensional understanding of the subject. But unfortunately that isn’t always possible. Plants have many interwoven branches and stems, overlapping leaves and flowers, and unique textures that are difficult to understand through photographs. That is when I look into detailed plant descriptions and at times, some online herbarium specimen collections help too. With regard to animals and birds, I browse through a lot of images and make plenty of rough doodles to familiarise myself with the subject and more importantly its anatomy. Once there is a basic understanding of the anatomy, it gives me the flexibility to show the subject in the preferred angle and posture of my choice. Whenever there is an opportunity to observe the animal in a zoo, I do that. I also reach out to experts in the field who could lend me a better perspective to things.
You have been working closely with children, to encourage and train them in nature journaling. Do tell us about your initiative GreenScraps.
Nature journaling is a simple and beautiful activity to observe, interact and stay connected to nature. Just the basic act of making sketches and writing notes about observations and personal thoughts has elaborately influenced my own relationship with the natural world. It is this simple pleasure, fondness and connection that I wanted to introduce to children and adults alike.
GreenScraps is now a decade-old initiative that was started along with an artist friend, Shilpashree. Together, we have been introducing people to the ‘art of seeing’ and encouraging everyone to discover the fun in maintaining a meticulous nature journal. We urge people to step outside, spend quality time in nature and open one’s eyes to observe the fascinating forms, shapes, sounds, colours and diversity that surrounds us.
Who are your favourite artists?
The world of natural history art is huge and is filled with many inspiring artists. I love how Robert Bateman, David Shephard and Kim Donaldson depict wildlife within their natural habitat. Chris Rose zooms out to show birds in their larger landscape and does it so impeccably. I have been drawn to the illustrative floral works of Margaret Mee and Sarah Simblet. More recently, I like Jane Kim’s beautiful illustrations and larger than life murals, and the beautiful compositions and illustrations by Zoe Keller. The simplistic digital works of Natalya Zahn, nature journals of Lara Gastinger and the stunning mountain scapes by Jeremy Collins keep me going and inspired!
What are the projects you are working on next? Are there any books on the cards? We are excited to know!
I have a mural painting project up my sleeve. I have also been in conversation with clients to set up one or two nature information centres in Karnataka. Unfortunately, the current pandemic has meddled with timelines. These information spaces have been the most meaningful blend of my illustrative style of artworks that reach out to a wider and more local audience, while helping with creating awareness and educational material.
As for personal projects, I have planned a series of large canvas artworks of Indian wildlife. We have some big plans for GreenScraps, to spread the love for nature journaling to a wider audience. As far as books go, I have a bunch of exciting ideas, and I would love to roll them out if I can find a publisher!