Green Armed Goldfinches, who lost their capacity to fly as they got lazy and would take Ubers instead of flying to their destination
What started off as a New Year resolution to better understand the medium of clay slowly became a way for Mumbai-based artist-animator Rucha Dhayarkar to give life to a family of clay characters. A testament to the power of creation, the characters are well-researched, full of fascinating stories and shed light on issues like women’s safety and mental health among others.
Rucha’s love for National Geographic and its myriad unusual creatures, alongside the childlike curiosity to make things were instilled in her childhood. However, this project is no longer just a way to hone her skills and be more productive. Instead, it has become a playground to channel her emotions and anxieties in the most heartwarming ways, using the impermanent medium to learn and share life lessons.
We speak to Rucha about the undertaking, which already includes over 50 delightfully weird characters in clay.
Tell me about the origins of this project where you combine clay and character design.
The project began as a New Year resolution. I had just started working on developing a script for a short film and it was quite an immersive process. It is something that's very easy to get lost in and one tends to forget about expression or personal work. This became more of an exercise in craft and storytelling and building a riyaaz. Initially, the project was just about creating simple characters and their descriptions. But it soon turned into a platform for me to speak about feelings, situations and news I was encountering on a day-to-day basis.
The Figgle Polyps, who pass on the skill of painting from one generation to another within a family
Why did you pick clay to work with?
Plasticine in itself is a very poetic material. If you have ever held a ball of plasticine in your hand as a kid, your can understand its beauty - you can flatten it, squeeze it, build worlds and create creatures with it. It's truly satisfying. And then you can go ahead and break it all up, which is equally fulfilling. You then have a gorgeous mess of colourful plasticine in front of you, ready to be turned into another animal, another universe. It's morbid and beautiful at the same time. I see it as a lovely testament to the power of creation.
What inspires you to make a character on a certain day?
My surroundings and state of mind. I have anxiety and stress issues, so every time I felt helpless, disappointed or angry, I would try to channel it into the project and come up with a character that dealt with the same problem or who was so happy it didn't know what these issues felt like. After a point, I was making a character and telling a story that was not about me but had its own universe and life with funny quirks, which in turn made me see the lighter side of life.
(Left) Scrimmlers are nervous extraterrestrials who tend to stress about everything; (Right) Narancha Bulbousces are silly creatures that fall in love easily and cannot procreate unless they have found their true love
Stationery-eating slugs, boas that eat bhakarwadis, and pygmy cats with Gems diarrhoea. What’s the research process for these stories and characters? Does the concept come first or the character form?
The form often comes from me playing with the plasticine for hours without even realising it. Those forms then get incorporated into the characters in a very organic way. Their stories, on the other hand, come out of my surroundings and are often an amalgamation of various incidents, observations and my consequent opinions on them.
Sometimes I think of the story first, like the Veracityspore, who is quitting his job as the 'overlooker' of India. That came as a reaction to the recent rape cases that took place. The characters in the local trains are obviously all inspired by the gritty daily life of a Bombay train commuter. There was the Magdolan who creeps up on women in local trains came from a real person who climbed into the Ladies compartment once. But the stories aren't explicitly about these incidents. Sometimes I make a character and it seems so silly that the story has to be written based on its physical attributes. Overall, it's more of an intuitive and spontaneous process. I do put in a lot of research into naming these characters, taking words from Latin, Spanish, German or even hardcore biological terms that describe the characteristic I'm trying to bring out.
So there’s a mix of fact and fiction...
They are mostly a mash-up of reality and made-up life. I would call it ‘reality fictionalised to sound funny so as to bring in some comic relief to this drab life we live’. Like the character who critiques writing came from the time I was writing a script and nothing seemed to be working. Eventually that script got written, but the character made me realise not to take life so seriously, which is the bottom line behind many of the stories.
(Left) The Yellow Spotted Thin Tailed Boa has a bad habit of consuming junk food, like the bhakarwadi; (Right) the judgemental Ditropceros has a hobby of travelling to nearby planets and passing judgments on its inhabitants
Do all your characters live in the same universe in your mind?
Yes, they do live in this fucked up universe in my head where bad things are happening to them all the time and they still go on like nothing's happened! Sometimes I really do feel bad for my characters, for the kind of shit I put them through - some get their heads cut, some get squished to death, some are beaten to death by women. Poor fellows!
You have studied animation prior to this. Take me through your life journey and career as an artist, and what led up to your interest in animation and bringing characters to life.
I studied digital video production at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore, after which I worked on video-based projects for the advertisement industry, corporates and startups for three years. During this time, it was hard to create personal work that satisfied me as an artist, creative and storyteller and I really missed working with my hands. Every now and then, there would be a project that involved a physical installation setup or a wall to be painted and I remember being the happiest while working on those briefs. But the medium of video was still as fascinating and close to my heart. Looking for a way to combine both, I reached the most logical answer: stop motion! This led to me doing a Masters degree in the same from BAU Escola Superior de Disseny, Barcelona.
Before that, I had zero training in animation. I honestly don't know why it didn't happen sooner because I always spoke of stop motion animation as something I dreamed of doing. I guess I just never had the courage to plunge in until now.
What are some of the inspirations for this project, in terms of artists/films?
Regarding inspiration, I grew up watching the Discovery Channel and National Geographic and am a huge fan of Sir David Attenborough. I absolutely adored the way there would be this voice of god explaining things happening to these animals, describing their habitat and food habits as if reading their mind. I guess a big subconscious inspiration comes from there.
You've really brought out the characters’ facial expressions and backstories. Does the whole thing come naturally to you? What's the hardest part?
I enjoyed working with my hands ever since I was a kid, so I guess a part of it comes naturally. The rest comes from practice and perseverance. I carry clay everywhere I go with me these days. There's clay in my fingernails at any given point. If I look back at the first character I made and the story I wrote for him in comparison to the most recent stories, I can see a distinct growth in modelling as well as storytelling. What's frustrating sometimes is that because this is such a spontaneous process, there are days when I can't produce anything, and there's nothing I can do about it but hope that it passes soon.
Female Itackas are aware of how the younger generation males are brought up and have brought about reforms in their education and social system to create gender equality
You've made 55 creatures since the start of the year. What's your plan ahead with the project?
To complete the project! I want to start making small animation loops or GIFs with these characters eventually, maybe even picking a couple of the most interesting ones and writing a script around them. And I'm looking for people who'd like to collaborate on the same. I’m excited about the possibilities!
Follow the series at www.instagram.com/ruchadhayarkar.
Design Log is a weekly design document logging every relevant art and design occurrence in India.