Paired with a keen eye and immaculate attention to detail, artist Niharika Rajput creates lifelike bird sculptures using just paper. With feathers handcrafted to perfection and colours made to pop, her artworks will leave you gawking in amazement. She tells us more about her sculptures and her process. By Bayar Jain
1. How did you get into making intricate paper sculptures?
I have always been a big admirer and keen observer of all things wild, and as a child, too, I loved building three-dimensional sculptures. When the time came to make a career choice, it was only fitting for me to amalgamate the two going forward. My subject, that is birds, came to me very slowly and organically. The idea was to replicate the feathers down to the last detail, and nothing does this better than paper.
2. What are the various designs or sculptures you usually make?
When I started out in 2013, I built abstract sculptures using different materials such as wire mesh, jute, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), fabric, epoxy, etc. Although abstract in form, these sculptures always had elements of wildlife. It was only later in 2016 when I started building birds full time. Of course, before that was the stage wherein I experimented with different materials to replicate the avifauna culture. Now, my area of specialisation lies in building intricate paper sculptures of birds and animals and replicating them as realistically as possible.
3. How long does it typically take for you to make one artwork and what is the process like?
It can take anywhere between two weeks to three months, or more, depending on the project at hand. Miniature sculptures usually take less time. But, if it needs to be landscaped as well, then the duration increases.
The process starts with a lot of research: collecting various photographs, watching videos, and sometimes stepping outdoors and observing the behaviour of birds and their plumage textures. Observation is an ongoing process. I always glue myself to the window pane every time a bird perches itself outside, just to look at its body structure and plumage. Next, I build the body using paper, wire and epoxy. This structure is stuffed with more paper, while the facial features and talons are made using regular epoxy. The next step is to sketch out all the feathers once the posture has been decided. Each paper feather is then traced and re-traced to get the final usable paper feathers. I cut out each feather individually using a pair of scissors to create a texture imitating the actual feathers. Then, I glue each feather individually onto the bird’s body. Once all the feathers are in place, I paint the bird using acrylic colours. Painting the bird is my favourite part, even though it takes time!
4. How do you narrow down on textures, colours, or even design for your artworks?
I have always believed that you will find the most sophisticated mechanisms in nature, and since my subject is wildlife, I never have to think of design, texture and colours. My only aim is to replicate it realistically—a process that requires a skillset capable of understanding anatomy, body structure, plumage and its colour, among other things. In trying to do landscaping around my sculptures so they fit into their habitat, I need to decide on what materials will replicate the surroundings well. In those cases, experimentation with design, colours and textures is required.
5. Why did you choose birds as your main muse?
My first memory of spotting something in nature that completely amazed me was a male white-throated kingfisher. Coming from a defence background, I often travelled with my family to far-flung places which were inevitably in nature’s abode. I would spend hours in our garden admiring little insects, butterflies and birds, of course. My favourite activity at night was to collect fireflies in a jar and look at spider webs in the dark using a torchlight. Growing up when we moved into an urban setup, this connection with nature got lost somewhere. The bond rekindled when I was struggling to find a subject, and I spotted a flock of red-billed blue magpies taking off together in Himachal Pradesh. I knew at that moment that I wanted to replicate nature.
6. How does your work help contribute to the conservation of wildlife?
With my sculptures, my idea is to bring a piece of nature into your homes which serves as a reminder of what exists outdoors and the need to protect it.
Along with creating art, I also conduct art for wildlife conservation initiatives in India and abroad. I work with many wildlife organisations, forest departments, nature centres, schools and art galleries to conduct various activities to raise awareness about endangered species. I conduct workshops with children and adults; organise bird watching trips that include bird guides and an e-bird app, and even give lessons on becoming active citizen scientists. My pet project is based in Ladakh and I have been working there since 2016. Over the years, I have conducted workshops in the remote villages of Ladakh and Leh. I also organised the first-ever bird festival in Ladakh in September 2018. The seven-day long affair was received very well! Apart from that, I have also worked in British Columbia with Allan Brooks Nature Centre and Caetani Cultural Centre in Canada for three months to raise awareness on the hummingbirds found in the country’s Okanagan Valley. Additionally, I have worked with World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Wildlife Trust of India (WTI),
Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), and the forest departments of Andhra Pradesh and Ladakh, to name a few.
7. How many sculptures have you made till date, and which is your most favourite?
I have made more than 100 sculptures till date. It’s hard to narrow it down on just one piece because each piece is made with so much love and precision. I guess my favourite has to be a tie between The Mating Proposal, a male kingfisher feeding fish to the female one, and a ruby-throated hummingbird sucking nectar from a flower suspended in the air.
8. In a work that involves constant creativity, how do you deal with a creative block?
Wildlife is extremely diverse, and there is a lot of data for wildlife artists to work with. Honestly, I haven’t had a creative block till now because I always know what I want to make next and in what setting. Having said that, to function smoothly it becomes mandatory for me to travel and see as much wildlife as possible. Seeing the birds building their nests, feeding each other, preening their feathers after a downpour, feeding their chicks and more adds tremendous value to my projects. I believe, this life won’t be enough for me to build all the bird species out there.
9. How do you incorporate sustainability into your artworks?
I try to minimise wastage when it comes to using acrylic paints, paper, epoxy or wire. I always buy synthetic bristle paintbrushes as opposed to natural bristle paintbrushes because they are made from natural animal hair such as hogs, sables and badgers. I use my brushes very carefully so I don’t have to replace them for a long time.