What makes the Banasura laughingthrush (chilappan) unique? This dull brown bird sings a melodious pee kooopee kooo that reverberates across the sholas of the Western Ghats. There is also the Palani chilappan, an olive-brown bird with a characteristic white eyebrow over a dark eye-line, and the Nilgiris chilappan, a bronze-brown bird, often seen in noisy flocks, giving out loud calls, similar to human laughter.
All of them are endemic to the Western Ghats. “Banasura can be seen only in certain pockets in Karnataka and Kerala,” says artist Ragavan Suresh as he displays his voluminous collection of works of art comprising scientific watercolour drawings of as many as 30 endemic birds of the Western Ghats, and over 40 drawings of endangered animals. This, in addition to a collection of 130 orchids endemic to the Western Ghats as per the list declared by the Government of India.
The endangered red panda with an unmistakable rich, reddish brown fur, and white lined ears stares at us from the canvas. “This was done using a brush with above zero thickness, equivalent to four thin hair strands. I have to plan every detail to get the exact length of the body, the legs, tail length, and body colour, as described by scientists,” explains Suresh adding that he has completed close to 20 paintings of wild animals, also endemic to the Western Ghats.
Suresh, who works as an illustrator in the Botanical Survey of India (BSI), documents flora and fauna to not just highlight their diversity but to also make future generations aware of their conservation. “So many species have become extinct. For example, there has been no documented sighting of the Kodai Hill Eater since 2008. Aenhenrya rotundifolia is a critically-endangered terrestrial jewel orchid,” explains Suresh as he talks about his five-year project which also includes a compiled booklet that packs information such as scientific and Tamil names, a short description, and population status as per the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list.
His drawings of the Naga wren-babler, an endemic bird that can be see only in Nagaland and Manipur and the Lion-tailed Macaque of Anamalai Hills look stunning. Among his collection, one can also spot the colourful Narcondam hornbill that can be seen only at the Narcondam island in the Andamans and an orchid bloom that resembles the face of a Kathakali artist. There is also a portrait of the endangered Nilgiri Sholakili, a chunky slaty-blue bird that sings long-winded notes as it forages in the hills of the Nilgiris.
“My idea is to leave behind something for the future. As an artist, this is my contribution. I want to display my collection at schools and colleges and create awareness. Besides my labour, every single painting, including the ivory boards, and colours works out easily to ₹1000.”
He intends to frame his work before he displays them at educational institutions. “Every drawing is a challenge. Water colours work great for a sharp finish. I have to maintain a uniform tone, texture and colours, as one wrong stroke can lead to a total collapse. It’s as complicated as a goldsmith’s work.” The artist, who is currently finishing 28 drawings of orchids endemic to the Andamans, interacted with scientists at his institute as well as forest officials to get inputs. He says, “It is an achievement if a scientist approves of my drawing.” He can be contacted at 9488833647 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org