After 3 hours spent single-mindedly tracing and retracing the perfect circle, fussing over the dimensions of a cardboard box, gluing with purpose, and making careful nicks with a paper cutter, the 11-year-old seated next to me jumps out of his chair. “It works!" he exclaims, gently rotating the handle attached to the side of a hollow, rectangular box. Its exposed interiors are set in motion, giving flight to the cutout of a bird perched on top.

At The Moving Art of Automatons workshop, which took place at Mumbai’s Tarq gallery this July, two long workstations are cluttered with craft supplies, and various paper machines are on the verge of coming to life. Atop each box, superhero-like figures, clouds, birds and turtles move in their own rhythm, or are in the process of finding one. These automatons are examples of paper engineering, powered by cams (oblong and circular cardboard shapes) that are strategically placed together to create movement. Working his way through the desks, offering hacks and assistance is Samir Bharadwaj, an independent designer for over 20 years who now runs the paper art studio, Papernautic, in Mumbai. Through experimental workshops that travel across styles, he aims to make paper art accessible for the novice, and challenging for the enthusiast.

Bharadwaj first got interested in paper crafts at the age of 3, when he was gifted a book on origami and was taught a few tricks by his father. “I liked the medium so much that I tried whatever I could with it. As soon as I was slightly older, I began teaching it to pretty much everyone I knew. There was a certain point in school where I was the supplier of paper planes—everyone knew how to make one kind and I could make 10," he says. After years of tinkering with paper crafts, Bharadwaj began to retail his paper sculptures online, and produced short, instructional origami videos for his YouTube channel, Papernautic.

Bharadwaj began teaching paper art in Mumbai this January, with two sold-out sessions on classical Japanese origami at the performance space G5A, followed by a paper-cutting workshop at Tarq, where a single sheet of paper was intricately carved with a scalpel knife to create avian species found in Mumbai. Each workshop includes a generously stocked take-home kit so participants can continue experimenting with the form.

‘Birds Of Bombay’ by Samir Bharadwaj
‘Birds Of Bombay’ by Samir Bharadwaj

The novelty of Bharadwaj’s classes lies in their fluidity and design: no two sessions feature the same technique, and each is customized according to the venue. It helps him look outside of social media, where he finds paper art dispiritingly uniform, and find inspiration in a space, a work of art, or a concept. For instance, at the Far-Eastern Paper Pottery workshop held at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in March, Bhardwaj drew from a permanent collection of ceramics, and conducted a session where a 3D paper sculpture was decorated with paper quilling, two forms that are rarely paired together. At a session to be held later this month at HaikuJAM, a space for collaborative poetry, Bharadwaj will package lines of poetry in pop-up cards.

In the last few years, there has been a spurt of paper artists on social media, with artists like Sabeena Karnik, who uses quilling to create elaborate paper typography, and Parth Kothekar, who designs delicate paper-cut artworks. Now, with a core group of regular attendants and requests for WhatsApp groups, Papernautic is enlisting new, diverse entrants into the paper art community, from packaging designers to gallery directors.

“People look at (paper art) as this compartmentalized hobby—you’re either into quilling or origami. I have always used the medium to do whatever comes to mind, and I’m coming across more people at these workshops who might want to look at it that way," says Bharadwaj.

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Starter kit

Paper art terms and supplies to get started

A turtle automaton by  Samir Bharadwaj
A turtle automaton by Samir Bharadwaj

Scoring: Running a sharp or blunt instrument, like a cutting knife or dull needle, along the surface of paper so that it’s indented but not cut through. Just enough to fold it cleanly along the line. Especially helpful in heavier paper and when you don’t need straight creases.

Mountain fold: Folding a sheet of paper where the crease points upwards and the edges on both sides of it slope down.

Valley fold: Folding a sheet of paper where the crease points downwards and the edges on both sides of it slope up.

Scalpel knife: Several steps above your humble paper cutter in precision. Small, very sharp knives with a tapered blade and a sharp point which allow for very intricate and minute cutting into paper.

PVA or white glue: Standard school glue that you get in any stationery shop is usually some form of this. It is water-based, easy to use, doesn’t produce fumes and works when you don’t require strong bonds between multiple materials.

Solvent-based glue: Usually sold in metal tubes. These are based on chemical solvents and give off fumes, but produce stronger, quicker bonds when working with multiple materials and things like automatons, which need added strength.

For details on workshops, follow Papernautic on Facebook and Instagram.

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