Little Miss Fantastic: inside the world of fantasy botanist Priyanka Shah
The Soho House Mumbai member talks to Dipal Acharya about her latest 100 Day Project, working with Vogue, and navigating the pandemic
By Dipal Acharya
To the world, a rose can be the most iconic of blooms. But for 32-year-old Mumbai creative Priyanka Shah, it evokes no feeling at all. ‘I look at a rose and it does nothing for me. Nothing. Not even rose-flavoured ice cream. I think they’re overdone, and I’ve seen them so often. I find nothing romantic about them.’
Shah knows a thing or two about what makes an evocative floral. The former graphic designer-turned-botanical artist has quietly risen to fame over lockdown, thanks to her Fantasy Botanicals series – a still-life photo project for which she splices together everyday fauna and flora with remarkable effect. ‘It was an exploration of how I could design my own plants – it still is. When I create a piece, I chase two emotions: I want people to feel surprise or disgust.’
It was in a moment of abstraction, while cleaning up after lunch in a co-working space, that the seed of an idea started to emerge. ‘There was a thread lying around on the table, a random rose stem without a head, and a frangipani flower without a stem. I simply took the three elements and used the thread to tie them together, joking to my colleagues, ‘Hey, guys, I designed my own flower.’
The artist’s first attempts at creating these Frankenstein-like flowers were rooted in a trial-and-error approach. ‘I treat it as a puzzle, [finding a way for] the pieces to fit into each other somehow, even if they don’t belong together. Other times, I’ve used thread, glue or pins, but they are all very well hidden.’
She called her early experiments the ‘What If?’ flowers, each given a characteristic of a man-made object: petals shattering onto a surface as if they were made of glass, or camouflaged in an animalistic print. Shah would style and photograph each one and upload it onto her website or Instagram, in what would eventually become her own 100 Day Project.
Currently on Botanical 72 out of 100, Shah finds inspiration (and materials) for her collage-like plants from the world around her, be it Sanjay Gandhi National Park– ‘the greenest it gets here in Mumbai’ – to collecting flotsam and jetsam strewn along the beaches of Goa.
Of course, flower markets play a huge role, too, and Shah frequents the most famous in Mumbai – the sprawling Dadar Market – for more traditional stems.
‘Flowers in Indian culture are used primarily for devotional purposes and given as offerings to god. Most of the markets in India sell flowers exclusively for your altar at home or the temple. My absolute favourite is the Datura [known for its striking trumpet-like head]. Its fruit is toxic in nature, so you can’t eat it, but it’s used as an offering for Lord Shiva. If someone decoded my work, I’m sure they’d find one in every piece.’
One worries that because of the rapid urbanisation of India’s cities, coupled with stay-at-home orders issued in the wake of COVID-19, Shah might run out of materials to work with. But necessity is, as ever, the mother of invention.
‘My mum is very into gardening and we have three balconies and two terraces at home. We grow things like pomegranate, papaya and herbs, as well as flowers [such as] bougainvillea and jasmine. It was on her pruning days that I’d find my treasures. It wasn’t the fresh fruit and leaves, but rather the dead and fallen ones that thrilled me the most.’
A fascination with natura morta has led those who follow Shah’s work online to start foraging on her behalf, sending her their finds. The weirdest thing she’s been sent? ‘The skull of a goat. It came with some other botanicals, but that was my favourite.’
Although the artist has amassed a cult following in India – she boasts Rhea Kapoor, scion of the Bollywood acting dynasty, as a fan and has been made a contributing editor for Architectural Digest – her creations aren’t for sale or available to view IRL. ‘It’s the ephemeral nature of my pieces. They can’t be easily preserved or packaged. Once they are made, I keep them at home on my table and watch them die.’
In contrast to the diminutive size of each Fantasy Botanical (they measure up to 10 inches), Shah’s passion project has led to commissions on a grander scale – whether it be creative directing lifestyle shoots for Vogue (both the Indian and American editions), or styling runway shows for feted Indian designers such as Payal Singhal. ‘[It’s] curious that something so small has inspired a Vogue shoot, which led me to a runway that’s 70 feet long. It’s pretty exciting how the scale has changed so much.’
India might be in the throes of a devastating third wave, but Shah still believes there’s the opportunity to soon run workshops and harness the creative spirit behind her work for future generations. ‘Children can be a lot more creative than adults; they have no inhibitions, and no one has drummed into them that a rose means love, or yellow symbolises friendship. Their minds are so clean and open, and so creative in that sense.’
In expanding her side hustle into a blossoming social enterprise post-lockdown, Priyanka Shah might just be onto something even more fantastic. Watch this space.
Prints are available to buy at @pri_ism.