Arun Yogiraj: Still Life

Sophia Ann French meets the sentient gaze of a goddess sculpted in stone.

Photographs: Simon Meier

Above image: Close-up of Shiva in Ananda Tandava

I WAS BORN into a Christian-Muslim home in India to parents who encouraged my curiosity for theology and ontology, and I began visiting temples in my teens, entranced by the magnitude of design in even the smallest shrines in India. Sculpting mūrtis is a ceremonial act, and the shilpi (sculptor) has to bring imagination to life using complex mathematical measurements prescribed in the Vedic canon. The mūrtis in Indian temples are spiritual and metaphysical metaphors that offer an experience of detached bliss to the sculptor and the audience. This measured artistry of Indian traditional sculpture gives every mūrti distinct energy and lifeforce, and no two idols look or feel alike.

Mysore Palace - Photograph: Simon Meier
Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV and his mother Maharani Kempananjammanni Devi
commissioned British architect Henry Irwin to design the Mysore Palace — 
completed in 1912

Experiencing art beyond an intellectual parameter is central to Indian temple art, and meeting sculptor Arun Yogiraj in Mysore was a culmination of my childhood interest in this art form. Simon and I met Arun at his studio, a shed in front of his ancestral home. The trees on the property are coated in white dust, giving the impression of a winter wonderland in tropical Mysore. Sculptures surround us in various stages of completion. Once complete, the temple mūrtis will be brought to life with a Vedic ceremony that infuses each mūrti with all the qualities of the deity it represents.

Shilpi Arun Yogiraj at his studio in Mysore, India.
Shilpi Arun Yogiraj at his studio in Mysore, India.

“My great-great-grandfather was an artist and worked in Narasipura, a village 37 km from Mysore. He worked with wood, and for two generations that was what my family did. My great-grandfather was the one to move from Narasipura as the village was plagued with cholera, and a lot of people moved away. My grandfather was eleven years old at the time. He joined the Jagadguru Shaivashilpa Brahmarshi Gurukula run by Shilpi Siddanthi Siddalinga Swami, who was one of the Royal Gurus of Mysore and the official palace artist under the patronage of Maharaja Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar,” explains Arun about his family’s initiation into working with stone sculptures. “My grandfather trained under Siddalinga Swami for 25 years and learned the applied science of Śilpaśāstra – both practical and theoretical knowledge. Theoretical knowledge is important in Śilpaśāstra because those guidelines enable us to turn a piece of stone into a mūrti and a god. To sculpt a mūrti that resides in a temple, we follow the Tālamāna measurement system. The belief among shilpis is that if you don’t follow the Vedic instructions, the stone will remain just a stone.”

Arun Yogiraj: Still Life
The pandit performs āratī in the garbhagṛha (inner sanctum). The mūrti at the back is Sri
Gāyatrī Devi, and in front are small bronze replicas of Gāyatrīi, Sāvitrī and Sarasvatī. These
are Utsav Mūrtis, which are taken around the temple during festivals and pujas.

After a tour of Arun’s studio, we went to the Mysore Palace to visit the Sri Gāyatrīi Devi Temple. Arun’s grandfather, Sri B. Basavanna Shilpi, was a well-known artist at the palace and was commissioned by Maharaja Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar to carve for the Gāyatrīi and Bhuvaneśvarī temples on the palace premises.

Sri Gāyatrīi Devi Temple, Mysore Palace
Sri Gāyatrīi Devi Temple, Mysore Palace

“My grandfather carved 64 idols in 11 months,” said Arun. “He also carved the Kaveri idol at Krishna Raja Sagara Dam. His work was recognised by the Prime Minister of India, Sri Jawaharlal Nehru, and they met at a delegation. My grandfather presented the PM with a small statue of a Darpan Sundari, and the PM loved it so much he told my grandfather to ask for anything as a return gift. My grandfather asked for a photo with the PM (laughs).

“My father teased him a lot about that story. He’d ask my grandfather why he didn’t ask for five acres of land in Bangalore? My grandfather’s answer was that artists should create for the sake of creating without asking for something in return. If we ask, it takes away from our culture. I’m grateful for my grandfather’s decision because if he chose the land, we’d be developers in Bangalore, and I wouldn’t be born as an artist (laughs).”

Sophia Ann French meets Arun Yogiraj
A murti of the Goddess Lakṣmī.

The three main deities of Gāyatrīi, Sāvitrī and Sarasvatī in the temple were sculpted by Arun’s grandfather according to Sanskrit verse, and Sri Jayachamaraja Wodeyar inaugurated the temple in 1953. “The maharaja was so pleased with my grandfather’s work that he awarded him a golden chisel, silver hammer and a golden chain during the inauguration.”

I sing in praise of Gāyatrī who has five faces of the colours of pearl, sapphire, gold, blue and white, who has three eyes, who has the crescent moon in Her crown, who is of the form of the (twenty-four) letters describing the tattva, who shows Varada and Abhaya mudra in two hands, and holds the Ankush, whip, the white skull, the Gada, the conch, the chakra and the lotus (in the other eight hands). 

Two murtis of Dwarapalaki (female door guards) guard the temple entrance. Arun explained the intricacy of the details on the mūrtis but stopped mid-sentence, found a cloth, and started cleaning away dust gathered in the niches of the detailed work. “It’s important to clean the mūrtis with coconut oil only. Coconut oil makes the cleaning process easy, and dust doesn’t stick to this oil like with other oils. Dust clogs the details on the intricate artwork.” Arun painstakingly cleaned the mūrti as much as he could, and then we walked around the temple premises. I asked him why there’s neglect in maintaining the statues. “There’s a lack of interest and information. I have offered to clean the statues so often, but the authorities just don’t call. I have even informed them that they should use coconut oil for cleaning, but any oil is used. Another issue is that while there are funds for renovation and preservation, the government gives contracts to architects who might be qualified but don’t necessarily know the nuances of temple architecture and art. Traditionally, a Sthapati (architect) would oversee the building of a temple, but they don’t have a paper degree, so they are not eligible to participate in renovation and restoration projects. I think it is important to involve their knowledge and expertise, as it is essential to understand how to restore temple architecture and artworks without losing their essence.”

Sophia Ann French meets Arun Yogiraj the sentient gaze of a goddess sculpted in stone.
Carved into the staircase is Vyali, a mythological creature with the feet of a lion, the trunk
of an elephant and a horse’s body

When the temple was empty, we entered the main hall to see the Gāyatrīi, Sāvitrī and Sarasvatī mūrtis – all made according to the Tālamāna system of aesthetic measurement and proportions.

Indian art forms are quantitative and based on complex mathematical foundations. Arun explained the interconnectedness of theory and skill in Indian temple art, as both are essential to achieving rasa. “Tāla is a unit that’s equal to a spread palm, and body measurements are based on tāla. For example, a powerful Devi like Lakṣmī will be nava tāla and most Ganeshas will be pañca tāla. The shilpi also has to know the gender of the stone (which is decided based on the sound the stone produces), the shape of the stone, the weight, the colour, etc. We also have to know the spiritual qualities of each mūrti, and the Dhyāna Ślokas outline these spiritual lakṣaṇas – how many hands, heads, weapons, instruments, ornaments, murdas, and whether the mūrti should be static or dynamic, standing or sitting… For example, the Gāyatrī Dhyana Śloka: Mukta vidruma hema neela davalachh ayai, mukhais tree kshanai, yuktam indu kala nibaddha makutam, tatvartha varnatmikam, gayatri vardabhay angusa kasas, subram kapalam, gadam, sankam chakram atharavinda yugalam, hastair vahanteem bhaje.  It means, I sing in praise of Gāyatrī who has five faces of the colours of pearl, sapphire, gold, blue and white, who has three eyes, who has the crescent moon in Her crown, who is of the form of the (twenty-four) letters describing the tattva, who shows Varada and Abhaya mudra in two hands, and holds the Ankush, whip, the white skull, the Gada, the conch, the chakra and the lotus (in the other eight hands). This Śloka is used for painting as well, the only difference is that in sculpture the colours of the stone are not limited to the ones mentioned in the mantra. On a deeper layer, the art created with this quantification creates an aesthetic experience or a rasa – a sentiment that’s evoked when experiencing art.”

My father was a strict teacher, and when I felt I was adept at a certain technique, he would make me repeatedly work on the same technique, always finding an imperfection…

After the palace, we went to Arun’s second studio. It’s a bigger space where he trains his students and works on larger sculptures. A 21-foot  Hanuman was in the making, but we were brought here to see a mūrti of Shiva in Ananda Tandava that Arun recently completed.

Sophia Ann French meets Arun Yogiraj the sentient gaze of a goddess sculpted in stone.
Work in progress on a 21 ft Hanuman mūrti

While Simon was documenting Shiva through a visual medium, I had a chance to examine the mūrti closely and had a fleeting experience of rasa. The artwork evoked a feeling of complete detachment from my surroundings and an immersion into the mūrti. I had an emotional aesthetic experience. Simon experienced a similar euphoria and told me he wanted his mum in Switzerland to commission Arun to sculpt a mūrti for her home. Sage Bharata Muni ((Nāṭya Śāstra) explained this experience in the Rasa Sutra – it’s the emotional and psychological mood that art evokes by affecting an individual’s Sthāyibhāvas. The eight Sthāyibhāvas are rati (love), hāsa (laughter), śoka (grief), krodha (anger), utsāha (enthusiasm), bhaya (fear), jugupsā (disgust) and vismaya (astonishment), and each is related to a rasa (experience or mood). The eight rasas are śṛṅgāraḥ (romance, love, attractiveness), hāsyam (laughter), kāruṇyam (compassion/sadness), raudram (rage, anger, fury), bhayānakam (horror), bībhatsam (aversion), adbhutam (amazement) and veeram (heroism, bravery).

Dwarapalaki
Dwarapalaki

Arun began training at age eleven and says: “My father was a strict teacher, and when I felt I was adept at a certain technique, he would make me repeatedly work on the same technique, always finding an imperfection. I think he was doing that to tame my ego (laughs). My father taught me how to listen to my stone and said the most effective way to train is to spend as much time as possible with the stone. When I think of it now, I see the imperfections my father saw. At the time, I didn’t because I loved my work, and that love was making me blind, as love often does (laughs). In that training, I spent eight to ten hours a day with my stone, and because my father made me work repeatedly, I found new ways to apply the same technique and do it in less time. This balance of technique and time is important when sculpting. It is my artistry and livelihood, so I can’t spend years on a mūrti (it can take that long). When my father made me rework each sculpture, with each repetition, I got better at applying skill and learned to work with a sharp sense of time as well. He also taught me how to apply the right temperament to my tools. If your tools cause discomfort, you will lose interest in learning, so I take special care to ensure my tools have the right temperament and are seasoned correctly. There is a bond between the stone and the chisel. The tools have to connect me to the stone like iron to a magnet.” 

Shiva in Ananda Tandava

In 2019, the Indian government commissioned Arun to create a 12-foot statue of the Indian Vedic scholar and teacher Adi Shankara. It was inaugurated at Kedarnath in the Himalayas. “Even though I was born into a family of sculptors, I attended college to study for an MBA, and for a few years I moved to Bangalore and worked at a 9-to-5 job. That was a dark time for me. I felt disconnected from my work, from my stone and life. I wanted to return home to my gurukulam and my tools and stones. I told my family, and my mother started crying because she knew the life of a sculptor is not easy. It took me two years to convince her to accept my decision. I came back to Mysore and dedicated myself to sculpting. So when Prime Minister Narendara Modi inaugurated the Adi Shankara statue at Kedarnath, my mother finally felt my decision was the correct one (laughs).”

Arun Yogiraj's students working on a project
Arun’s students working on a project

Arun’s grandfather’s vision was to preserve this art form, a quality he instilled in his son and grandson. Arun offers five students apprentice scholarships for an 18-month study at his studio, with education, food and accommodation provided. This year he’s aiming to accommodate ten students. “The publicity from the Adi Shankara mūrti has inspired a lot of young students, and I’m grateful for that. I want to preserve the art of traditional Indian sculpture, and I want to share my knowledge with young artists. If they’re interested in the subject, they should train correctly with extensive knowledge of the science of Śilpaśāstra and how to apply it. I want to teach them how every stroke of the hammer speaks to the stone through the chisel, and this communication is how a shilpi starts giving life to the mūrti and gets it ready for Pratiṣṭhāpana.”

When I sculpt mūrtis, I spend a lot of time talking to my stone and reciting Dhyāna Ślokas. I have to convince the stone to allow my chisel to shape a god. When the mūrti is ready for Pratiṣṭhāpana, it’s where my journey and experience comes alive so the audience can interact with it and feel the same union that I felt. 

Close-up of the Shiva mūrti
Close-up of the Shiva mūrti

Arun’s monolithic sculptures and mūrtis have a transcendental quality, and Pratiṣṭhāpana is the climax of his artistic experience – it’s the rite of placing the mūrti in the inner sanctum of the temple and inviting the divine to live in it. “When I sculpt mūrtis, I spend a lot of time talking to my stone and reciting Dhyāna Ślokas. I have to convince the stone to allow my chisel to shape a god. When the mūrti is ready for Pratiṣṭhāpana, it’s where my journey and experience comes alive so the audience can interact with it and feel the same union that I felt. Pratiṣṭhāpana begins with a series of rituals. First, the mūrti has to be cleansed at the workplace of the shilpi. The process is called Karmakutir and purifies the mūrti. At the end of this process, I close the mūrti’s eyes with a thin layer of ghee and honey. The next step is Jalãdhivãs, where it is further purified with a yajña and submerged in water to check if it is whole and not damaged. The submerged mūrti is covered with a cloth, and we ring a bell to awaken it and then wipe it dry. This is followed by Dhãnyãdhivãs (covering the mūrti with rice or wheat grain), Ghrutãdhivãs (covering the mūrti with ghee) and Snapan (bathing the mūrti with milk and 108 other substances). The next step, Netra-anãvaran, is when the sculptor opens the mūrti’s eyes by removing the layer of ghee and honey he had added during the Karmakutir. A mirror is held in front of the mūrti and the sculptor stands behind the mūrti to remove the layer of ghee and honey with a gold shalãkã (needle) by looking in the mirror – this is known as the Netra-anãvaran rite. The mirror is held in front of the mūrti as it is believed divine dṛṣṭi is too powerful for a human being to endure, so the first dṛṣṭi of the mūrti should fall upon its own reflection. The mūrti is then laid to rest for one night after the Shodshopchar Puja, and the final step is moving the mūrti from the yajña mandap to the garbhagriha (inner sanctum) for the Prãna Pratiṣṭhāpana rites that turn it into a vessel for the divine.”

Sophia Ann French meets Arun Yogiraj
Decorative detail on the temple floor

After I left Arun’s studio, I spent the afternoon walking around the Mysore palace and went back to the Sri Gāyatrī Devi Temple on my own. It was late afternoon and scattered light from the trees fell on the temple like diamonds. I sat close to the inner sanctum, reflecting on everything I had learned that morning. I contemplated the Devi – the detail of her ornaments, instruments, beauty, fragility and strength. I was immersed in rasa and the emotional aesthetic experience of meeting the sentient gaze of a goddess sculpted in stone.

Photographs: Simon Meier




APRIL 2022 Sophia Ann French MONK


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