Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is among the tallest artistic luminaries this world has ever seen. But what many do not know is that the man behind the world-famous paintings of Mona Lisa and The Last Supper was also an engineer, scientist, and theorist. Similarly, Samuel Morse (1791-1872), the inventor of the telegraph and the man behind the Morse code, was trained at London’s Royal Academy of Arts and co-founded the National Academy of Design in Manhattan. Although his artistic genius got overshadowed by his scientific one, his painting, Gallery of the Louvre (1831–33), remains a testimony of his creative flair. Santiago Ramón Cajal (1852-1934), the Spanish neuroscientist, was Spain’s first to win a Nobel Prize in sciences. While he remains the father of modern neuroscience, several of his illustrations depicting structures of and inside the human brain are showcased in several art galleries.
Looking at these examples, it seems the disciplines of science and art complement each other well. However, our current academic curriculum demarcates them strictly, with students forced to choose one over the other. However, there are some who are bridging this gap.
An illustration at a time
“Neither. I was a sociology student,” says botanical illustrator Nirupa Rao, when asked if she studied botany or fine arts. So, what does a botanical illustrator mean? “Essentially, it means painting plants,” she explains.
Despite having not studied either of the two, Rao seems to possess the eyes of a botanist and the hands of an artist. Funded by National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, she, in 2019, came out with the Hidden Kingdom: Fantastical Plants of the Western Ghats, a book “that aims to open the minds of Indian children (and adults!) to the magical world of plants from the Western Ghats in southern India”. “It features the weird and the wacky, the carnivorous and the parasitic, the poisonous, the stinky and the unimaginably valuable through hand-drawn illustrations,” the artist explains.
A year earlier, in 2018, another book titled Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats came out. For this, Rao worked with ecologists Divya Mudappa and TR Shankar Raman, who run a rainforest restoration programme in Tamil Nadu. “They were looking for a way to visually document trees they work with, so we documented 30 native trees along with their fruits, flowers, seeds, and leaves,” Rao says.
That is not all. Rao illustrated the cover for author Amitav Ghosh’s book Gun Island and re-jacked four of his older novels for Penguin Random House. “I also collaborated with the Centre for Wildlife Studies on Wild Shaale (‘Wild School’ in Kannada), an environmental and conservation-education programme designed for rural school-going children, aimed at nurturing interest and empathy toward India’s wildlife and wild places,” she shares. During the Covid-induced lockdown, she recorded art classes televised on the national channel Doordarshan as part of a programme coordinated by the Going to School Foundation.
Regarding her recent work, Rao received the National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship to work on a short, animated film set in the Myristica Swamps of the Western Ghats. It will be like the Jungle Book, but all the plants and animals in the film are local to the region, the artist shares.
Nature means fun, freedom
Although Rao did not study botany, her family is full of plant lovers, botanists, and horticulturalists. “My grand-uncle, Fr Cecil Saldanha, was also a well-known botanist who documented the flora of Karnataka back in the ’60s and ’70s,” she says.
However, her fondness for nature developed differently. Rao grew up in the city of Bengaluru, Karnataka, where during holidays, her family would take her to the Western Ghats. “Since I was young, the grown-ups would take us cousins on trekking adventures, even if we had to sit on their shoulders most of the way up. It led to an automatic association of nature with fun and freedom,” she shares.
While Rao’s “love” for nature stemmed from her experiences, she grew worried that future generations may not get to experience nature this way. “Without that close emotional connection, will they be invested in working to save our environment when we need it most?” she reflects. And she came up with an answer: “Art could be a good way to generate an interest in nature among those who do not necessarily have much experience with it.” So, with her cousin Siddarth Machado, a botanist, she started working in this field. “We worked on the Hidden Kingdom and Wild Shaale together,” she says.
‘Not competing with photography’
Illustrations can be a way to document flora and fauna. But isn’t photography a handier option? “The former can have some practical benefits over the latter,” replies Rao and shares the experience of Divya and Shankar Raman. “When they first had the idea to visually document trees for Pillars of Life, they initially tried photography but soon found the task virtually impossible. The trees were too tall (up to 140 m) to capture in one camera frame, and the surrounding foliage was often too dense to permit the isolation of a single specimen in an image. Even when standing right in front of some of these species, I could not see the entire tree. But with illustration, I could study the buttress up close and then climb further up the hill to see its crown rising above the canopy. In my drawing, I could stitch these pieces of the puzzle together, filling in with Divya and Sridhar’s expertise which I could not see with my own eyes. With some species, we were not able to find a fully grown specimen that was visible. So, I studied a sapling instead and proportionately scaled it to a fully grown tree.
That is one of the hallmarks of botanical illustration: it allows you to create an idealised version of a species drawn from careful study of several specimens. A crucial tool for identifying plant species!” she explains.
“In some of my recent illustrations for the Nature Conservancy (an American organisation), I have depicted processes such as pollination mechanisms in orchids or traditional land management systems in Hawaii. These things are quite hard to photograph and are better communicated through illustration,” she says further. “I do not try to compete with photography, but to supplement it,” she adds.
Undoing the stereotypes
Despite our academic curriculum drawing a strict demarcation between the two disciplines, in reality, no such line exists, says Rao. “These are all just different approaches towards the same mission: making sense of the world around us. It always helps to approach a single issue from multiple perspectives and with different methodologies,” she says.
On whether there is a need for a fluid curriculum that caters to a student’s scientific bent as well as artistic flair, the botanical artists replies in affirmative. “Science is stereotyped as dull while art is stereotyped as weightless, but in reality, good science requires creativity, and good art requires rigour. Students can benefit from undoing these stereotypes,” she says.
“This was true until pretty recently,” replies Rao on the general understanding that being an artist might not guarantee a stable income. However, things appear to be changing. “We live in a very visual age when a lot of our communication takes place through imagery. This has created a boom in demand for artists, illustrators, and graphic designers,” she explains.
However, it can still be difficult to find a stable job like that of an engineer or doctor. “A lot of people in this field are freelancers, which requires you to be your own boss and manage your own time, deadlines, finances, negotiations, etc,” she says, adding: “I would say you have to have a versatile skill set to be a successful artist.”
Sculpting through science
Sukant Saran is a physicist by training. But if you ask him, he describes himself as “an artist of science”. Yes, an artist and a scientist, two trades that never converge whatsoever.
The environment at home, he says, was one conducive to creativity, aiding him to start early. However, his formal journey began only in 1985 after he joined Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) after completing his post-graduation in physics from Punjab University. Disenchanted with conventional science, he dropped out five years later without submitting his PhD thesis. Instead, he took up an editorial job at the same institute, which allowed him to pursue his twin interests in art and science.
As an ‘artist of science’, Saran has played with everything, from pen-works, paintings, and collages to photographic and digital art. “However, since 2010, I have been so captivated by sculpting that now I hardly do any two-dimensional work,” he says.
Aesthetically pleasing, scientifically accurate
Some artworks are aesthetically pleasing, some are scientifically accurate, but Saran’s are both. In a sculpture he named Newton’s Apple, he made an apple depicting the one that supposedly fell on Isaac Newton’s head, with a cratered surface, just like that of the moon. When asked, he quipped, “Newton’s story is a man-made one. His greatness, however, lies in formulating a single law that could explain the falling of the apple as well as the moon orbiting around the sun.” This was enough to understand the idea behind Newton’s Apple.
Speaking of one of his earliest digital art pieces Amino-scope, the artist explains, “It is based on a scientific fact that the entire story of life, from proteins to cells, to life forms, to super-organisms, to ecosystems, to the biosphere, is governed by the arrangement and interactions of just twenty amino acids.” This lone fact, he adds, is much more remarkable and astonishing than the tall claims on how the movement of planets influences human life.
The simple event of the wisp of steam coming out of a hot cup of tea inspired his sculpture Evaporation. It, aesthetically, depicts the science of water molecules condensing into small droplets and the droplets coalescing to form wisps, Saran explains.
His work has been displayed in academic and research circles. Quantum Superposition, a digital artwork, was gifted by TIFR to ETH, Zurich in 2012 and was displayed at the Quantum Computing Section of Institut für Theoretische Physik. Some of his work is at the TIFR, Mumbai.
When asked about the roles of science and art in his life, he says that the two are not separated in his mind. “They enrich me, define and direct my work, and help me to make sense of the world,” he says.
The two disciplines are not separated in Saran’s mind, but they are in our school and college curricula. “Our curricula, and also our society, place far too much emphasis on sciences, mathematics, languages, and humanities, in that order, as compared to arts,” the scientist says. It happens even though “throughout history, the creative interaction between arts and sciences has given rise to new ideas”.
So, is there a need for a fluid curriculum? The answer seems to be affirmative.
“A good starting point would be the inclusion of art-appreciation courses in the curricula. A course at the school level, introducing the great artworks of the world—Indian and foreign, ancient and modern—could go a long way in addressing the problem. The students should be exposed to visual arts just as they are exposed to poetry. Sensitivity to arts would enable students to appreciate the diversity of thought and minds. They would be able to get a wider perspective on any discipline they choose to pursue,” Saran says. “Creativity is a vast ocean, and there are various ways to enter the waters,” he adds.
The human evolution from homo erectus to homo sapiens heightened with a progression from books to laptops shown in Warli painting, a tribal art form from Maharashtra. Another one titled, Significance of zero, shows an Indian mathematician and a cow on one side and an Arab trader and a camel on the other, both connected by a wormhole, showcasing the invention of zero by the Indian and its dispersal to the world by Arab traders. The USP: all this is depicted in the form of artist Jamini Roy’s Kalighat painting. Interestingly, all this is a part of a course taught at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru.
Bitasta Das teaches a course titled Mapping India with the Folk Arts at the undergraduate programme of IISc. “Arting Science is the outcome of that, in which every year, a different folk art form is taken up, which is either narrative, visual or performative,” Das explains. “Arting Science comprises a final assignment where students ponder over science and scientific knowledge using folk art as the medium,” she elaborates.
“The intent is to make these students a bit more sensitive towards Indian multiculturalism so that these budding scientists are grounded in their social context. Also, we do activities to bridge disciplinary boundaries,” she explains.
Why folk art?
Das recently wrapped up the ninth edition of Arting Science. “Every year, we have deliberated on a different art form, without repetition, such as folk paintings, music, dance, theatre, cuisine, costume, etc. The water cycle in the environment through Malayalam boatmen song, the four-colour theorem expressed through Kalbelia, Darwin’s theory shown with puppetry, and entropy in Chittara art are just some of the works included in Arting Science. And each time, the students have made me proud,” Das shares.
The course is as interesting as the medium.
“I have deep admiration and respect for people’s knowledge, and folk art is an expression of that knowledge,” the professor says. “This folk knowledge has evolved organically through relentless interaction with nature and surroundings, but we tend to ignore this vast treasure,” she adds.
So, the idea was to introduce India’s budding scientists to the overlooked knowledge of people. “It will not just enable them to appreciate a different domain other than science but will also make them cognizant of the nook and corner of our vast country. The objective of the course is to help bring out societally conscious scientists,” she explains.
Not just for the benefit of the budding artists, it was also “an experiment to add another dimension to the themes of folk art, that of science and technology, affirming that they are dynamic and relevant”, Das says. “Besides these, through Arting Science, I also wanted to express the beauty of science through a creative medium, other than text and calculations,” she adds.
Arting Science is somewhat of a testimony of what happens when disciplines are allowed to interact freely. However, it is not what we see often. “Our education and training do not encourage us to perceive knowledge in totality,” Das says. “The need for an interdisciplinary approach is often discussed. The course, in some ways, tries to address this need,” she adds.
Poetry to build bridges
“Buildings rise with the heat,
to the wretched needs
of the insatiable few.
lined up as garish dominoes
upon the heaving, sweating
of the common good.
and cooling walls
with these burning obsessions
make a mark”
This poem by Sam Illingworth, an associate professor at Edinburgh Napier University, is inspired by recent research on how global warming can likely deepen the environmental injustice in urban areas.
A poet and a scientist, Illingworth started using poetry to communicate scientific research when he set up his blog, The Poetry of Science, seven years ago. Since then, his work has evolved to include research into using poetry as a medium to connect scientists to non-scientists. “I am particularly focussed on helping to diversify science and in giving voice to under-served and marginalised communities so that they can help contribute to the development of both scientific discourse and research,” he shares.
So, how does it help those with no science expertise? A recent piece of research found that dairy cows exposed to wildfires produced less milk. Now imagine a farmer. What will be more palatable for him: going through the whole text of scientific research or understanding it in the form of poetry?
According to Illingworth, “poetry helps to level perceived hierarchies of intellect, creating a level-playing field in which the public can come together and discuss how science affects them, and its importance.” Not just that, this form of communication “presents the research in a new lens, thereby potentially helping the researchers involved to reconsider their work and its impact on the wider society,” he adds.
In India, science and art are treated as distinct subjects. “This is certainly my experience from my education in the UK as well,” Illingworth revealed. “However, I know that this is not always the case in many other cultures. In Western traditions of knowledge, the two have been much more explicitly linked together. However, with the advent of professionalism in the sciences (around the early 1800s), this, sadly, became less frequent,” he elaborates. But there are exceptions, such as the poetic scientists, whom he has featured in his book A Sonnet to Science.
Illington sees both science and art as “incredibly interesting” on their own. “However, what they can do is help to present an alternative lens through which to reconsider each other, opening up potentials for interdisciplinary collaborations that explore the liminal spaces between the two,” he elaborates.
Bridging the wide gap between the two is his other project Consilience, “the world’s first peer-reviewed science and poetry journal”, which he started in 2020.
“I founded Consilience in 2020 and help to lead it, but it is a collaborative effort run by 78 volunteers from six continents, including a very strong Indian contingent,” he says. A quarterly online publication, it publishes poems and artwork about science, all linked by a common theme, submitted by creatives from all backgrounds. “Consilience was set up to create a space for the people working on the overlaps between the sciences and the arts, and it is free to read and submit work to,” he explains.
Simplifying science with a dash of humour
“As a scientist in training, I realised there is a need to fill the gap between science and the world,” says Vinita Bharat, a neuroscientist and post-doctoral researcher at Stanford University, USA. “The need for and importance of communicating science sans the scientific jargon, and telling what we as scientists do in labs to my friends and family who were not in science, motivated me to start my own science communication platform Fuzzy Synapse in 2017,” she adds.
It is a platform where she simplifies complex scientific ideas and concepts “in a fun and easy way by adding a pinch of humour” through illustrations and cartoons. The name is intriguing, too. A synapse is a gap between two neurons through which signals get transmitted. “And fuzzy signifies something which is difficult to understand and explain,” she adds.
The platform now houses over 170 illustrations by Bharat on diverse scientific topics and concepts. For example, one titled Love is working out together depicts the importance of exercise. Another one showcases a stem cell as a Swiss knife, depicting its ability to develop into different kinds of cells. One interestingly portrays the role of a catalyst in a chemical reaction, while another one illustrates cancer cells that failed a multiplication test.
A scientist by training, Bharat always loved to doodle and learn. “I enjoy drawing a concept to understand it much better. Hence, illustrations and cartoons come naturally to me,” she says. “Because a picture is worth a thousand words,” she explains on why she chooses illustrations to depict science.
Both involve imagination and creativity
Science and art are not distinct subjects for Bharat as “both involve imagination and creativity”. “Scientists need a language to communicate their findings to a broader audience, and I see artists can use their powerful medium to do that,” she opines. Not just that, the two “must come together” to rein in misinformation, such as regarding Covid-19, the scientist adds.