It’s easy to mistake Niharika’s sculptures of birds for photographs, which goes a long way in conveying the amount of detail and work put into them. Her fascination with sculptures began at a very young age, when she made very basic 3D models out of paper. Now she is a full time sculptor, who creates hyper-realistic renderings of birds, reptiles and insects.
Initially she started out by making abstract nature art, constructing lamps out of wire mesh that resembled carnivorous plants. While abstract art allows the artist to freely incorporate their imagination into their art that is not the case with the hyper-realistic sculptures she currently makes. “Each form has its challenges, but in realistic sculptures there is no need to add anything new because everything is laid out in front of you.”
The shift from creating abstract art to making hyper realistic sculptures happened shortly after she went on a trip to Himachal Pradesh, to clear her creative block. There she saw a Red Billed Blue Magpie and she was completely mesmerized by its graceful form. She was seized with a desire to sculpt it as it was. “But I knew that a long road lay ahead, because I had to understand the subject before depicting it realistically”. After returning, she watched a lot of documentaries and did a lot of reading to understand the birds; then she slowly began experimenting with different materials.
Niharika is a completely self taught artist and her sculptures range from miniatures to life size models; that take anywhere between 3 weeks and 3 months to make. Like any art form, sculpting requires a lot of patience, for she spends a lot of time observing the subject and studying its anatomy from photographs and then makes intricate sketches of each part. She tells me that the feathers take the longest because they have to be worked upon individually; it’s a repetitive and lengthy process and she works her way from the tail feathers to the wings. She colors and brings them to life with acrylic paints and then to increase their authenticity, she constructs a landscape for the bird to exist in; making it look like it was frozen mid-flight or perched regally upon a branch. She primarily uses various grades and varieties of paper, wires, regular epoxy and as mentioned before, acrylic paints to give form and life to her sculptures.
Even as a young girl she was fascinated, not only with birds, but with all aspects of nature. “As my father was in the army, we moved around a lot; but we were always in places with lush greenery. So wherever I went I was close and connected to nature.” But things changed when her family moved to Delhi, “It was more urbane and I felt that the connection between me and nature was severed”. But that changed when she went to Himachal Pradesh.
Her ties with nature extend beyond art, as she actively participates in a number of conservation activities by partnering with wildlife conservation organizations, Forest departments and Nature Interpretation Centers, and educating people about the dangers that threaten birds. She says that her responsibility as an artist is not only in portraying her subjects realistically, but also in protecting them, “If I say that I’m a wildlife artist but I don’t do anything to protect them, then what’s the point?” One of her earliest conservation efforts was with the Black Necked Crane, whose numbers are dwindling as their habitat is threatened. To educate people about this phenomenon, she curated workshops for children and interacted with them by telling them about the dangers that threaten the Crane population, she also made them build simple models of the Crane; the children were only too eager to learn. She tells me that while teaching children she realized that they know very little about the wildlife around them. “I’m just an artist, but I do my part and enable them to help other conservationists and ornithologists”. She adds that the children were very enthusiastic about building the models, and that building something makes them want to know more about it; some even catch an interest in making models and bird watching. “When you make children aware of these things from a young age, they can do a lot more for the conservation effort when they grow up.” Niharika also tells me that she plans to open a Nature Interpretation Center of her own, in the future.
But her sculptures aren’t limited to birds; she also makes sculptures of reptiles and insects. Recently she made a sculpture of a hairy bush viper, complete with its rough and bristly scales; poised on a branch with its alert eyes on the lookout for prey. Making this sculpture was a bit of a challenge as she was chilled at the sight of this two foot long, bristly tube of neurotoxins; adding to the fact that previous encounters with snakes had been not entirely pleasant. “When I started this, I thought it would be difficult, but as I made progress, I realized that I wasn’t as afraid as I thought I was; and building it has helped me slightly mitigate my fears.” Apart from the Hairy Bush Viper she has also made a Pangolin and a Goliath Beetle.
Niharika spends most of her day on sculptures and planning her workshops and on her time off takes walks and observes the flora and fauna that in a park close to her home. Owing to the pandemic and a surge in online education, she has been occupied with online workshops on top of commissions, which have kept her busier than usual. She advises budding sculptors to spend a lot of time observing a subject, and to be patient and disciplined while working. “It’s better if you start early, and make sure that you enjoy what you’re doing”