Climate change or climate crisis means the same but many prefer to choose the first option for a softer and more positive approach. We get scared of being shown the mirror. Recently at a Sarita Handa (New Delhi’s upmarket concept store known for its most luxurious upholstery fabric in India) event I was blown away with Botanical Illustrator- Ravi Jambhekar’s vein by vein replicas of the original. Having never paid so much attention to the science and art of flowers, fruits, vegetables and ornamental plants in such a manner, his water color paintings sunk in as a silent movement of sorts. On talking to the 31 year old, I realized it that I must not treat my natural settings – trees, flowers and literally the birds and the bees as wallpaper.
MD: What is your family background?
RJ: I was born and brought up in Mumbai. Both my parents worked while I was growing up. And I am the only child. Was always fascinated by the natural world. Had pets at home through childhood – they formed my extended family.
MD: What were your reasons for choosing ecology for PhD?
RJ: I was an average student my entire school life. Was never interested in studying. Would always find excuses to go out and observe birds, animals and plants. Did very well in Biology in the 12th standard so pursued a Bachelors degree in Zoology. The Head of our undergraduate college in Mumbai, Dr. Madhavi Indap was very enthusiastic and supportive for a career in research. She taught me how one could document biodiversity seen around our homes, city parks and while travelling. It was during my undergraduate days that I got hooked onto documenting butterflies and observing their behaviour, what plants they feed on, where do they lay their eggs, what do caterpillars of different species look like, etc. I moved onto doing a Masters Degree in Environmental Science from University of Pune. As a part of my summer internship I did a project documenting the butterfly diversity in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. For a dissertation before starting my PhD I looked at the effect of Lantana camara (an invasive weed) on butterfly behaviour and diversity in Biligiri Rangan Betta Tiger reserve in Karnataka. We found that invasive weeds are harmful for native butterflies as they displace native vegetation and are not suitable nectaring sources for most butterflies. Native vegetation is important for butterflies as the caterpillars of all butterflies feed on the native grass, herbs and trees. I enjoyed this work so much that I joined the Indian Institute of Science to continue working on butterfly behaviour and populations in the western ghats to understand the effects of habitat fragmentation and degradation on butterflies found in the western ghats so that it can help in designing effective conservation measures. Researching on it seemed like the best solution which led to a PhD in Ecology.
MD: You’ve used art, multimedia and writing to draw attention to conservation issues. What are your reasons for it?
RJ: I started using art, multimedia and writing to draw attention to conservation issues to reach a wider audience through social media. Research papers and presentations in conferences only find a limited scientific audience. Whereas, writing popular science articles helps connect with the layman and spread scientific knowledge. You can read my article written for Nature in Focus, a popular science e-zine.
For example, I started drawing leaves of trees found in the western ghats two years back, while doing field work. I make life size paintings of different species of fallen leaves to draw attention to the diversity of plants that we have in our country. Plants are usually overlooked and not appreciated but when one sees botanical paintings it catches their attention. The general public becomes more aware and starts noticing the diversity around them, appreciating beauty and variety in nature. Awareness is the first step for any kind of conservation to happen and that is what I aim for.
MD: With this exhibit do you see yourself becoming a fulltime artist?
RJ: I don’t see myself becoming a full time artist. I love science as much as art, maybe more. I aim to use art to promote science and hence science will always be my first priority.
MD: Which artist’s work do you admire? And why?
RJ: I admire the works of Van Gogh because I really like impressionist form of art. The other artist that I admire is Maria Sibylla Merian a German-born naturalist and scientific illustrator who focused on botanical art during the 17th century. Another being Bengaluru based Nirupa Rao’s flora and fauna illustrations. Someday I would like to meet those standards.
MD: What is your ultimate goal in life or as an ecologist?
RJ: My ultimate goal in life is to go back to village life own a farm and a herd of cattle, graze them during the day observing animals and birds in the forest and grasslands and dedicate some time in the afternoons to painting. Haha!!! Just kidding. On a serious note I want to continue doing research which will help in conservation of India’s wildlife.
Apart from academics, Ravi is associated with citizen groups and NGOs in Goa, Mumbai and Bangalore. He helps them conduct nature walks and workshops to create awareness about wildlife conservation and educational outreach activities.