Keeping up the ancient art form of leaf drawings

By Janice Rodrigues

One could say that talent — and a love for art — run in Sandesh S. Rangnekar’s family. But it’s not love for just any kind of art either; it’s for the kind found in the most unusual places. Sandesh’s father, artist Sadashiv G Rangnekar, was skilled in carving patterns into cuttlefish bone and creating rangolis on water. He was also well-versed in everything from oil painting to sculpture-making to embroidery. So, when Sandesh was younger, he took every opportunity he got to, forgive the pun, take a leaf out of his father’s book.

“As a child, I was always fascinated by my father’s work,” says the Oman-based artist, who was in the country last weekend for World Art Dubai. “I especially wanted to try working on canvas but never had the courage to ask my father for access to his art tools. So, one day, when my father stepped out of the house, I snuck into his study and started painting. When I was done, I showed it to him and he was amazed. He told me to use his canvas and brushes whenever I wanted; it was the biggest compliment and it gave me a newfound confidence.”

That was the beginning of Sandesh’s love for art. But while he had his first taste of it with canvas, there was one art form that his father practised that Sandesh still treasures, and is trying to keep alive today.

“Painting on peepal leaves is a delicate art form that originated in Kerala, in southern India, where intricate paintings are drawn on dried leaves,” he explains. “It started because of the unusual heart-like shape of the leaves which taper at the bottom to form a sharp point. It really does show the ingeniousness and patience of artists — although now, there are only a few artists left who practice this leaf art.”

One of the reasons the art form is hardly practised today is because of the painstakingly-long process. For starters, peepal trees — and hence their leaves — are native to the Indian subcontinent and therefore aren’t even available in the UAE or Oman. “I have to bring the leaves from Mumbai, my hometown,” says Sandesh.

The leaves then have to be placed in a bowl of water for 15 days to a month. But that’s not all — the water has to be changed periodically and the leaves need to be checked every few days to ensure they are in good condition. “The purpose of soaking the leaves is to remove the outer layer. However, after being in the water for long, the leaves do tend to develop a film which needs to be gently washed off using a brush. Once this is done, you’ll find a beautiful, off-white structure. Dry it for a day and the leaf is ready to be painted on.”

After that the truly tricky part starts — painting intricate artwork onto the leaf. Sandesh uses watercolour, oil and acrylic paint with a brush. Even pencils cannot be used on the leaves as they are fragile.

Over the years, Sandesh has created a number of intricate paintings on the leaves, from animals to landscapes to portraits. His portraits of famous people, in particular, have garnered a lot of attention — such as the series he made of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman depicting them from their early days to recent times. He’s also created portraits of Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe and Ratan N. Tata. When the singer Asha Bhosle visited Oman, Sandesh got a chance to meet her and give her the portrait he had drawn of her on the leaf. Needless to say, she was beyond impressed.

“I would say that painting the Mona Lisa was one of the toughest, but most satisfying work I’ve done so far,” says Sandesh. “To get that smile right, especially on a surface that delicate, was not an easy task. Portraits are definitely the hardest things to draw.”

But it’s all worth the effort to reach his end goal — to keep the ancient art form from dying out. “The entire process of creating a peepal leaf drawing takes roughly 30-40 days. It needs patience and precision and so, very few artists around the world do it — and no one else in this region. That’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about it. It’s an ancient art form and everyone should know of its existence.”

Janice is a millennial who hates selfies and likes breaking stereotypes

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