‘There’s nothing in nature that is not enthralling, but what fascinates me the most are birds: their vibrance of plumage, their ability to migrate long distances and build houses better than trained architects,’ says artist Niharika Rajput. Based in New Delhi, Rajput crafts miniature, realistic sculptures of birds using paper.
These are the subject of workshops she conducts with children, which she uses as a gateway to further discussion around forest conservation, in places like Ladakh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Canada. In tribute to the indigenous birds of Kodaikanal, the artist will be crafting a permanent installation at Kodaikanal International School.
Working with the KIS’s Centre for Environment and Humanity, located in Swedish House, Rajput will be raising awareness about the urgent need to protect and preserve the sky islands of the Western Ghats through a Palani Hills project.The phrase ‘sky islands’ refers to isolated mountain ranges surrounded by radically different lowlands, exhibiting incredible biodiversity. ‘Exploring the Threatened Shola Sky Islands: An Art and Education Project on Native Birds and Their Diminishing Habitat’ is driven by a grant Rajput received from the National Geographic Society, as a Nat Geo Explorer 2022.
For her upcoming project, Rajput is creating a series of 12 sculptures of endemic, sedentary birds found in the shola sky islands, including the White-bellied sholakili, Nilgiri flycatcher, Palani chilappan, Nilgiri wood pigeon and grey-headed canary-flycatcher. The works will soon be a permanent installation at the KIS Centre for Environment and Humanity, next year. The exhibit will include soundscapes of birdsong which are triggered by motion sensors, creating an immersive environment for viewers. Tsetan Angmo, an animator from Ladakh, is documenting the work on video.
CEH’s Ecoclub Program, initiated by Dr Rajamanikam, program coordinator at CEH, comprises a network of 23 Kodaikanal schools offering environmental education through experiential learning. ‘Dr Rajamanikam and I will introduce students to the ecology and wildlife of the Palani Hills, preparing them for Niharika’s art workshops focussed on native birds,’ says Iti Maloney, director of CEH.
Rajput will also be designing a nature-inspired art room at KIS, and holding workshops in 30 schools in Kodaikanal, focussing on bird-watching, nature drawing, sculpting birds and their nests using natural materials.
‘When I first landed in Kodaikanal the sheer blanket of green took my breath away,’ says Rajput. She spotted most of the birds near Bombay Shola, at the field station of IISER-Tirupati, whose team shared constant inputs, accurate measurements and photographs of birds from different angles to get her started. Rajput also visited Puliyur for a short trek. ‘We walked through invasive lemongrass, fearing it would consume us because there was so much of it.’
As her practice evolved, Rajput explored a variety of material and media to create accurate replicas of birds. After experimenting with clay, fibre and wire mesh, she found the combination of paper and wire. ‘Paper replicates the feathers of birds realistically, and wire, because of its flexibility and sturdiness, helps to build the armature,’ she says. ‘It is extremely versatile. I use it not only to replicate the plumage but also to sculpt different perches for the birds.’
Rajput’s miniatures, although made with decidedly inanimate materials, embody the dynamism and energy of the exquisite, exotic creatures of the forest. From hue to shadow, shape of feather to glint in the eye, the detailing of each bird is painstakingly recreated.
As a child, Rajput grew up around an abundance of wildlife, travelling often as her father was in the Indian defence services. ‘I vividly remember two encounters with birds as a child. The first was seeing a breathtaking White-throated kingfisher and my failed attempt to photograph it. The second was trying to see newly born chicks high up in a creeper in our garden. The chicks fell off the nest and did not survive the fall. I became more sensitive and patient around wildlife after that.’
Birds in the sholas and grasslands of Kodaikanal face rapidly depleting habitats. Encroachment by humans has led to a sizable chunk of land being detached from the forest, in the Western Ghats. A research article co-authored by ecologist and evolutionary biologist Dr V V Robin in 2019 observes that over the last four decades, ‘the loss of grasslands to exotic trees predominates (340 sq km; 23%) the modification of this landscape, and continues today at a rapid pace’. And, ‘based on the grasslands estimated for the landscape, conservationist Abhimanyu Lele did surveys for the Nilgiri pipit in the remnant grasslands that indicate a low presence of this bird in areas that previously had extensive grasslands,’ he told TKC.
Birds play an essential role in our ecosystem, responsible for seed dispersion, pollination and even pest control. Without our avian friends, farms would be overrun with insect outbreaks. Artistic practices, like Rajput’s, are a gentle and beautiful reminder of the harsh realities of our natural environment, and the desperate need for education and awareness of the same.