The Scarlet Minivet's wings are spread wide open, exhibiting striking shades of red and black. Its red tail feathers unfurled like a fan and its talons in position to grab the nearest branch for a smooth landing.
A moment frozen in time, expertly captured by a photographer, one would assume. But no, this gorgeous minivet has instead been brought to life in exhausting detail and at full-scale by a sculptor, using just paper and paint. Meet Niharika Rajput, aka @paperchirrups as she is popularly known to her Instagram followers. This young artist is taking the avian world by storm, creating lifelike paper sculptures of various bird species. From minivets to hummingbirds to kingfishers, a simple scroll through her Instagram account will show you that Rajput can breathe life into any bird in this paper land.
Rajput creates sculptures but what she builds is an intent to conserve and protect the avian residents of our planet. Through her workshops and exhibitions, she creates awareness of the many threats that birds face and she instils a love for a forgotten art – to sit back and observe what surrounds us. In this interview, she talks about her painstaking process of building sculptures, her workshops and how she is getting children to pick up binoculars over/instead of smartphones. Over to paperchirrups.
When did you first feel inspired to create paper sculptures? Can you take us back to that moment?
I have always had that love for wildlife, and I was always curious about the world around me. As a child I would spend a lot of time observing insects, butterflies and birds closely. I started working on sculptures right out of college, more as a hobby. But these were abstract pieces. I did this kind of work for almost a year, and I also exhibited some of them in galleries across Delhi. At the time, I was not very satisfied with the kind of art I was creating and decided to take a break.
My family and I planned a trip to Himachal Pradesh, and I thought that I would come back and then maybe revisit my approach. I remember this distinct moment on that trip that sort of changed things for me. I witnessed a large flock of Red-billed Blue Magpies flying away from a tree in unison. They really caught my eye; I was mesmerised by the sight of those colourful birds. I think it was that moment when things took a U-turn for me. I decided to replicate birds to the very last detail. I realised that I no longer wanted to build something just for the sake of it, that I wanted a purpose for my art. After that holiday, I began focusing on birds, experimenting with different materials to get their shapes and feathers right. I had to experiment with a lot of mediums to see which would best help me, so paper sculpture was not something I chose, it sort of came to me because I decided to specialise in birds. I just built on my craft from thereon.
The detailing on your sculptures is just amazing. How much time does it take for you to complete one sculpture? Could you give us a preview of the process?
When I am building a sculpture, I first decide whether to do a miniature or a life-size version of the bird. Based on that decision, I begin looking at the proportions. I start with researching the anatomy of the bird – wing and tail structures, and other features. This also helps me decide how I am going to display the sculpture. Are the wings going to be spread out? What expression will the bird have? Will the mouth be open or shut? I think about all this before I begin working on the sculpture. I also watch videos online, read up about the species and use photographs to study the bird closely. I have worked on pieces where the bird is a new species to me, and I have never seen it before. This is why I prefer my research to be meticulous.
When I am ready to work on the sculpture, I start with sketches, simple silhouettes of the body. My sketches are detailed, especially when I draw the wings and feathers because these are the feathers that have to be cut out eventually for the sculpture. If you observe birds closely, you will find so many minute variations between their feathers. For example, I look for variations between the top feather and the underwings . After detailing my sketches, I build the basic structure of the body and then I work on the facial features. I finally get to the feathers, and this is the most lengthy part of the process. You never realise that there are so many feathers on one bird until that point (laughs)! The next step is painting the sculpture, but before that I see different photographs of the bird to understand how their colours change under sunlight. This is the overall process in a nutshell. Depending on the detailing and the size of the sculpture, it takes me anywhere between 1-3 months to finish one piece.
Please tell us a little bit about the Art For Wildlife conservation initiative in Ladakh and your work to raise awareness about the Black-necked Cranes in the region.
My work in Ladakh started with Black-necked Cranes, but it then took on a life of its own. I visited Ladakh for the first time in 2015, and it was my driver there who introduced me to the Black-necked Crane. Unfortunately, I never got to see a single Black-necked Crane during that trip, but his stories intrigued me so much that I went back to Delhi and began researching the species. I also got in touch with WWF and requested their reports on the Black-necked Crane. I was already doing conservation-led campaigns for different birds at the time, so I was interested in raising awareness about this endangered bird whose numbers were depleting in the Ladakh region. I built a few sculptures and worked on a report based on my research, and the sculptures were exhibited at the Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation in 2016. The project slowly evolved into more, and I began conducting workshops in schools, many of which were located in remote parts of the territory. During these workshops and through my interactions with the children, I realised that they are unaware of the wildlife that surrounds them. When asked to give examples of animals, they are quick to name elephants and tigers instead of the more common species from the Ladakh region. This really surprised me, and I decided that my efforts to educate them cannot be a one-time affair or just about one species. I kept going back to Ladakh for the next two years, and continued conducting workshops in different schools. I could not travel in 2019 and 2020, but I do hope to keep doing this in the future when I can travel again.
These workshops have grown immensely in their reach and impact. In 2018, we conducted a Bird Festival in Ladakh – a collaborative effort between the Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation, the local forest department and the Dara Shikoh Foundation. Artists from all over the world joined local artists, and together they displayed sculptures, paintings and animation videos at the festival. There were also a few performances that talked about how birds are represented in folklore. People there had never witnessed a festival like this before, and the event had a good turnout. The animation videos from the festival were also circulated in many schools, which inspired children to set up birdwatching clubs. Now that I have their attention, I would like to expand my workshops and other activities to include the other wildlife of Ladakh.
You have conducted wildlife awareness campaigns in India and abroad, working with children and adults. How do people respond to your sculptures, and how have they helped you spread the message?
I am going to answer this with an example. I worked in British Columbia (BC) for three months in 2016, for an art and environment-themed residency at Caetani Cultural Centre and Allan Brooks Nature Centre in Vernon, BC. During this time, I got to know about the work that conservationists and naturalists from North Okanagan Naturalists' Club and Allan Brooks Nature Centre were doing to raise awareness for the conservation of hummingbirds. These birds were drastically losing their habitats in the region. I learnt about their research on hummingbirds and they also showed me how they monitor the birds and their movements, collecting data for many years. I found their work fascinating and this was a new topic for me. I realised that the local community members should know about these ongoing efforts. So, we planned an event towards the end of my residency, where the women from the naturalists' club set up booths to showcase their instruments and their work and I displayed hummingbird sculptures. The people who attended the event did not just look at my sculptures and leave, but they interacted with the club members and picked up on a lot of information about the birds. More importantly, they learned how they can contribute to protect these birds, what kind of flowers in their gardens would help, how they can feed them, etc.
As an artist, this was a huge learning experience for me – it taught me the power of collaboration. I learned that it is important to work with people who are already in the field, because you want to add to their knowledge and whatever it is that they are working on. Art is a great tool to educate, but if you want to encourage change and create tangible outcomes, you have to work with experts and others who are already working in that direction. These are people armed with the right knowledge.
Having worked with so many children, how important do you think it is to create awareness about the natural world at an early age and include these conversations in their education?
Education is the first step towards conservation. And, art is one of the many mediums that can help build awareness. I have worked with children across India and abroad, and I continue to do workshops online for children and adults alike. Once they build birds and work on the details, they suddenly become very intrigued. They become more observant and engage in conversations on protecting the birds and understanding their world. I see this response often. In 2019, I conducted several workshops in collaboration with the Nature Conservation Foundation in Valparai, Tamil Nadu. During this time, I worked with students in the government school there and I still get messages from them. They send me pictures of their sculptures and images of birds that they have identified in and around where they live. So yes, these mediums help instill that curiosity, and then you can begin to explore the issues and work on solutions. In the end, you protect what you care about.
In these difficult times, how can people stay connected with nature through art?
I know we have been forced to stay indoors, which may be bad for us, but it has done so much good for the wildlife around us. Where I live, it is a concrete jungle and in the last two years I have seen so many birds which I had never seen before. As many of us are forced to stay indoors, we have also become more observant of the natural world outside. We can document these observations in various ways – draw, sketch, photograph. I think this is a great time to delve into the world that surrounds us. I know people are interested in exploring these creative paths based on the response I get for my online workshops. Through these workshops, we have built so many sculptures together. Also, I see that wildlife-based art is slowly gaining popularity in India. It is a growing field with ample opportunities. I am so inspired by the people working in this field, and I also see many budding artists who are doing some amazing work. It’s not just about birds, I also seek inspiration in art that explores various flora and fauna. It is very heartening to see that people are interested in nature and want to explore it further through different mediums.