“In 2002, I was returning to Kalimpong in the eastern Himalaya region of India, and I found numerous trees had been cut down for a dam on the Teesta River at Kalijhora,” recalls Hemlata Pradhan, an artist who had just completed her Master’s in natural history illustration in London. This shocking sight on National Highway 10 marks a watershed moment in her life. The dam’s environmental damage fueled her ambition to use her paintbrush to protect the flowery world of her hills.
Pradhan’s expedition is representative of a larger effort to safeguard the Kangchenjunga Landscape in the Eastern Himalayas, and its unique wildlife, which is an important component of the ‘Himalayan Biodiversity Hotspot.’ Orchids, rhododendrons, and other indigenous blossoms are more than just flora; they are profoundly ingrained in the cultural and religious traditions of the region’s Indigenous populations.
Inspiring a new generation
Hemlata Pradhan’s dedication extends beyond her beautiful paintings of Eastern Himalayan vegetation. In 2011, she founded the Himalayan Trust for Natural History Art in a remote village near the Relli River, where she continues to impart her knowledge and passion for art and nature to a group of rural children, primarily girls from marginalized backgrounds. Her commitment extends beyond art; She wants to encourage the next generation to bear a sense of responsibility for their natural surroundings.
She puts it this way: “With climate change and fast infrastructural development, there is an ecological change in the hills of Darjeeling and Kalimpong, and as a botanical illustrator, I feel it is important that we sensitize our younger generation to the importance of conservation of the local flora and fauna.”
The cultural importance of flowers
MC Rai, an 82-year-old resident of a rural community in Sandakphu, Singalila Ridge, underlines orchids and rhododendrons’ significant cultural value. For the Indigenous Kirat Rai community, orchids hold a central place in religious offerings, and the rhododendron flower plays a crucial role in traditional ceremonies, such as marriages and social gatherings. However, these flowers are threatened by deforestation and habitat degradation.
“Orchids are losing their host plants due to tree felling for development,” Rai says, “and rhododendrons, locally known as guras, are also losing their natural habitat.”
The influence of botanical illustrations
Neera Joshi, a Nepalese botanical illustrator, utilizes watercolors to bring the unique Himalayan flowers to life on canvas. Her painstaking work has made a substantial contribution to the study of local flora, and she plays a crucial role in “Flora of Nepal Volume III,” a collection of botanical line drawings for scholarly journals.
Joshi understands the importance of visual communication in conservation. “[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,” she emphasizes. “These illustrations can engage the public and inspire a deeper appreciation for plants and their role in ecosystems.”
Joshi, now 55, has been teaching botanical illustration for nearly two decades, passing on her knowledge to artists and scientists alike. Her training attempts to use the power of art to help preserve the region’s floral diversity.
Bridging conservation and development
Preserving the region’s distinctive flora is critical, but it is not without difficulties. Unregulated infrastructure development and construction frequently occur without proper planning or environmental effect evaluations. According to Rajendra Yonzone, an assistant professor in the Department of Botany at Kolkata’s Victoria Institution and a resident of Kalimpong, it is essential to integrate scientific expertise and meticulous planning into the process.
Yonzone recognizes the benefits of digital photography in today’s technologically advanced society. It provides a faster and more efficient method of keeping plants and their scientific information. Hemlata Pradhan, on the other hand, believes that botanical illustration excels at catching and accentuating nuances that may be elusive in photographs. She feels that botanical illustration serves a distinct purpose in recognizing and showing plants more closely than images, emphasizing the value of this art form in the preservation of our natural heritage.
“As a 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 Pradhan, the artist who has dedicated her life to capturing the beauty of eastern Himalayan flora on canvas. Her interest derives from her background, in which her father, Udai C. Pradhan, an orchidologist and botanical illustrator, instilled in her the importance of conservation. “He used to teach us the names of plants, trees, insects, and birds that surrounded us,” she said.
A valuable conservation tool
According to Yonzone, art can be a helpful conservation strategy. He adds that real conservation can occur organically if these elements are allowed to grow in their native environment.
The stakes are high, as rhododendrons and orchids are culturally significant in the local communities yet are under threat. Rhododendrons are blossoming prematurely as a result of climate change, while orchids are subjected to significant illegal trade for their therapeutic and medicinal benefits.
While Pradhan recognizes the complexities, discipline, and hard effort required in botanical art, she also points out 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 evidence of plants is easier to collect, store, and transfer, she explains.
However, Pradhan believes that botanical illustration excels at catching and accentuating nuances that may be difficult to capture in photographs. “Elements like cluttered backgrounds or any plant deformations encountered when photographing a plant in its natural habitat can be completely omitted in a painting.” She claims that botanical art serves a special purpose in recognizing and depicting plants more closely than pictures.
As artists and scientists in the Eastern Himalayas continue to paint, illustrate, and educate, they provide a ray of hope for the preservation of their region’s exceptional flora in the face of climate change and development pressures. They are developing a closer link between mankind and nature via their artistic manifestations, reminding us of the cultural and ecological treasures that we must safeguard.