Be it their striking colours, complex textures, structures of feathers or facial expressions, birds have always fascinated us with their beauty and diversity. To replicate such colours and textures by building paper models may seem next to impossible; but Niharika Rajput (or @paperchirrups, as she is popularly known on Instagram) has mastered this art of creating life-like avian models with just paper! She not only pursues this art as a hobby but has gone two steps further to use the talent to contribute to wildlife conservation.
In today’s day and era, the field of wildlife conservation is far more diverse than just being about research. Niharika believes that art is a great medium to raise awareness about conservation and reach wider audiences from various strata of society. She narrates how sculpting has enhanced her knowledge of biodiversity and encouraged her to take initiatives to conserve wildlife.
When did you first start sculpting the beautiful bird models, and what inspired you to create them?
Since my father was from a defence background, we’d have to travel often and live in areas surrounded by greenery and forest patches. As a child, I was highly observant and loved staying outdoors, chasing fireflies or observing how spiders weave their webs. I also remember being fascinated by the vibrant colours of the white-throated kingfisher when I first spotted the bird. Eventually, we moved to Delhi, which is a concrete jungle. So although I somehow lost my connection with nature, it only felt right to combine art and wildlife while making my career choice. I started interning with an organisation in Delhi called People Tree. There I would build everything from lamps and jewellery to miniature bird models made out of epoxy. I couldn’t really identify bird species back then, but the project encouraged me to research them.
But I was still not satisfied with my work and decided to take a vacation to Himachal Pradesh with my family. There is a distinct moment on that trip that completely flipped things. A large flock of Red-billed Blue Magpies caught my attention, and I was mesmerised by their plumage colours. I wanted to replicate every minor detail, and this is when I truly decided to pursue this art form.
Please tell us about the initial years; what was the most challenging part? What was your initial choice of material?
Mastering the bird’s basic body structure, including the facial features, talons, feathers, etc., and understanding what material would be best suited to make it look realistic, was challenging. I initially experimented with paper mache clay, wire mesh and epoxy. But fixating on paper as the ideal material for replicating the structures took a while.
Also, earlier I would simply use a single cut out for the wing and add the details using paint. But to make them seem more natural, I now cut out every individual feather so that the layers add another dimension to the structure.
Could you take us through the process of sculpting these models? How do you manage to make them look so life-like?
I have to start by reading a lot about the bird to understand its basic anatomy, the colour of plumage and the posture that I want it to be in. Once I have mapped everything in my head, I sketch out the basic body form. I then build the armature of the bird’s body, which is made of paper and galvanised wire. Then I focus on the bird’s facial expressions and building features like the beak, eyes, etc. Getting to the feathers is the most lengthy part of the process, but I have tremendous patience. Finally, I begin to paint the bird, and to make it seem natural is a play of light and shadows. It is quite a tedious process and sometimes takes even a couple of months if the piece is large.
How do you think your work has helped create more awareness around bird conservation?
I conduct the Art for Conservation initiative and have collaborated with several research organisations across India to raise awareness about conservation among the local communities. My first project was in Ladakh, where I worked with several private and government schools across villages and towns. It wasn’t just a bird building activity out of paper and wire. My objective was to introduce them to the local bird diversity by taking them for bird watching with experts and teaching them how to use field guides and the eBird portal. I have also organised Ladakh’s first bird festival in collaboration with the forest department, Ladakh Arts & Media organisation and Dara Shikoh foundation. We had painters, sculptors, animators, musicians and theatre artists from across the world to perform art inspired by the bird diversity of Ladakh. Then we had also invited expert biologists to give presentations. My next aim is to build a Nature Interpretation Centre in Ladakh, but we will require funds.
In the Northeast, I worked with the Nature Conservation Foundation as part of their hornbill conservation project. The tribes of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland have a ritual of hunting hornbills for their feathers that they use to make headgears. So I had to create the tail feathers of hornbills made of fabric and paper, and convince them to replace the real feathers with artificial ones so that people eventually stop hunting. Then I also collaborated with Wildlife Trust India to create elephant models for the Gaja Yatra and raise awareness about the elephant corridors of India.
Conservation efforts are never enough. There’s always something that you can keep doing in conservation, not just through research but an amalgamation of diverse fields.
What, according to you, are some of the major threats that birds are facing today? Any particular bird species you feel needs urgent attention?
Rapid urbanisation and concretisation are creating a significant disturbance for bird habitats. The architecture we see in urban cities is mostly not sustainable and does not support bird nesting sites. Then there are problems such as uncontrolled tourism, which hamper their breeding. Habitat degradation and ever-growing populations of pigeons and crows create competition even for smaller urban birds like sparrows and oriental white-eye. But the bird that genuinely needs focus is the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard, owing to their declining numbers. They often suffer from problems like electrocution, hunting and degradation of grasslands. With less than 150 individuals left in India, urgent attention needs to be drawn to conserving their populations lying within pockets.
At an individual level, what small steps can we take to protect the birds in our surroundings?
First and foremost, become observant and aware of the different birds around you. After you know what kind of diversity you can expect in your area, read about their feeding, perching and nesting habits so you understand what types of plants they prefer. Suppose no granivores are visiting your backyard, simply hanging birdhouses and placing grains in the feeders may not benefit them.
Further, by participating in different citizen science initiatives like bird counts, you can help researchers collect data for long term monitoring and conservation. You should always keep rescue helpline numbers handy so that if you spot an injured bird, you can immediately reach out.
For more of Niharika’s amazing work, check out her Instagram.
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