Life in 3D: the Gods and Muses of an Animation Genius

When Charuvi Agrawal was in class six, she made a self-portrait. Her art teacher announced that it was too “mature” for her age, and told Charuvi to throw it and start again. Though the child cried initially, she later went and submitted it in an art competition.

“That was my first win,” says the 34-year-old entrepreneur, who now runs the award-winning animation studio, Charuvi Design Labs.

Winning competitions came easy to her from then on: in class seven, she made miniature statues of prominent politicians, which made it to the Limca Book of Records. In high school, she used art and graphics to draw her answers during tests, and her teachers loved it. The girl was clearly meant for visual arts.

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A 3D sculpture of a buff-bodied Hanuman made with 26,500 bells, measuring 25 feet in height

Brought up all over India as her father worked in the aviation industry, Charuvi did her graduation in painting from the Delhi College of Art, where she was a gold medallist all through. She then moved to Canada to study animation at Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning, and to work there with some of the best minds from around the world, making music videos, animations for TV shows and so on.

In the meantime, her student film The Tenth Avatar was travelling to film festivals around the world, and Charuvi was being invited to speak at computer graphics conferences. By the time she returned to India, her reputation preceded her.

She was offered an unusual project: a 3D animation film on the life of the Hindu god, Hanuman. The money involved was substantial: “I could set up my own studio in that amount,” Charuvi thought to herself. Yet she was wary as the promoter was erratic with fulfilling his commitments.

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Miniature figurines from the characters in Charuvi’s film Hanuman Chalisa

Encouraged by her mother to take on the project anyway, Charuvi immersed herself wholeheartedly in it. She set up her own studio in Delhi and hired 30 animators. She travelled to Varanasi to understand the lore behind the Hanuman Chalisa, a devotional hymn dedicated to the simian god.

Her film, made over three years, was a vastly complex work of art: she and her team converted the film with 60,000 characters and 40 environments. They turned it into an application for tablets, and even a book.

As she’d feared, the promoter bailed out and she ended up co-funding the film herself. “But by then, I had started believing in the deity’s virtues,” says Charuvi, who began hero-worshipping Hanuman.

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A kavad, ‘cabinet of curiosity’

Some of her relatives worried about her devotion: “Lord Hanuman was a brahmachari (celibate). He’s the wrong god for a single 30-year-old girl,” they opined, warning, “She’ll never get married as long as she’s working on this project.”

But the god blessed her in more ways than one.

The film went viral after its release in 2013, and went on to win numerous awards around the world. Charuvi created a large 25-foot superhero-like sculpture of Hanuman using 26,500 bells, which made it to the Limca Book of Records and was exhibited across India. She also made a series of kavads, an ancient Chhatisgarhi form of art, somewhat like cabinets of curiosity.

She was facilitated at the ‘Incredible India@60’ Festival in New York as one of “the emerging 10 who would transform the global artistic landscape”. She got several projects and was commissioned many more pieces of art, including a sophisticated zoetrope on the life of JP Narayan.

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A zoetrope on the Thali Bajao Andolan during the time of JP Narayan

She also met entrepreneur Aditya Singhal, who would go on to help in marketing the Hanuman Chalisa film for her. They fell in love, and married as soon as the project was complete. They now have a two-year-old son, Vikramaditya.

Charuvi is busy these days on the next art installation and is moving to a bigger, swankier office in Gurugram. Professional in her demeanour and yet humble and thoughtful in conversation, she has got the hang of running a successful business. Going by her talent and drive, it’s only about to get better.

First published in eShe magazine’s May 2018 issue. Buy it here.