The figurative oeuvre of Arun Yogiraj served as a preparatory ground for this man who sculpted the colossal statue of Subhas Chandra Bose for the canopy near India Gate in New Delhi
BY SUJATA PRASAD
A magnificent statue of Subhas Chandra Bose installed under the canopy near India Gate that was unveiled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 8, 2022 seeks to reclaim his colossal place in history. The monolithic 28-foot statue carved from a granite block weighing 280 metric tonnes is evocative, in the prime minister’s words, of a modern, strong India.
Excerpts from a freewheeling conversation with Arun Yogiraj, the 39-year-old sculptor: Your commemorative work is astonishingly real in its detail. From the carefully crafted creases on Netaji’s uniform to the perfectly proportioned musculature alive with dynamic energy… how did you manage to get everything so right? It was a huge challenge. I had to push the boundaries of sculpting. I must confess that my first interface with the granite block was a little intimidating. It was the hardest of hard blocks transported from a quarry in Khammam, Telangana, on a truck with 140 wheels that took nearly a week to cover the distance of 1,665 km. Liberation of the form trapped inside the mammoth stone was not going to be easy. I used testing blades from a hundred companies before I could shortlist the ones that would work. Lifting and turning of the stone was another huge challenge. My fellow workers and I had to wear respirators even during extreme summer heat due to the high silica content. We were given directions to complete the project by August 15, in a little over two months of starting.
The timeline must have been daunting for your entire team.
It was. We worked round the clock in a makeshift work space at Delhi’s National
Gallery of Modern Art. In addition to sculpting, and ensuring that we had all that we needed, I had to constantly address everyone’s individual problems so that our momentum and commitment would not falter. I myself had left behind a newborn son and my little daughter, but agonising over that was not an option. My team consisted of artisans from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan. To keep them reasonably happy, I sourced cooks from Rajasthan and Andhra.
This project must have also required a prodigious amount of research.
It did. I made copies of hundreds of photographs, took extensive notes, did detailed studies. Most of all, I visualised possibilities and variations based on my own knowledge of human form. I even crafted a miniature two-foot model and presented it to the prime minister. I was delighted by his positive response. He cradled the rather heavy statue and praised my visual language.
You are one of the most celebrated sculptors of your generation. What are your sources of inspiration?
My greatest inspiration comes from the stone itself. The physical features of different types of stones, their grains and texture intrigue and excite me.
My work is profoundly influenced by classical art. I love visiting historical places like Belur and Halebid to study their temple architecture and intricately carved three dimensional sculptures. Look at Belur’s beautiful Chennakeshava temple or the amazing 12th century Hoysaleswara temple in Halebid with more than a thousand figures carved on the walls: they resonate at intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic levels. If only we could echo the artistic accomplishments of the time.
Any contemporary sculptor who draws your attention?
I admire the work of Brian Booth Craig. His figurative oeuvre is truly exquisite. The physical materiality of his work and his unique perspective are unmatched.
Much like your own figurative oeuvre, your monolithic sculptural portrait of the last king of Mysore, Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar, acclaimed for his love for music, literature, and the arts, installed in the heart of Mysore city, and several other works including R.K. Laxman’s iconic Common Man statue made for the Malgudi Museum in Shivamogga, and the recent statue of Adi Shankaracharya installed in Kedarnath that was dedicated to the nation in 2021 by Prime Minister Modi. Please share the defining moments of creation of that iconic statue.
It was a spiritually enriching experience. The samadhi-sthal of the renowned seer was in the process of being redeveloped after it was destroyed in the 2013 Uttarakhand deluge—when I was selected for the project. I retraced the seer’s spiritual journey as part of my research. The stone selected by me was chlorite schist. A team of seven sculptors worked 14 to 16 hours a day for nine months on the statue. Made in my workshop in Mysuru, the 12-foot statue weighing 28 tonnes was transported by road till the Chamoli airbase from where it was airlifted by the Indian Air Force. I was deeply moved when I saw the prime minister meditating before the statue.
You obtained an MBA degree, and for some time were also part of the corporate world. When did you decide to take up sculpting as a
Sculpture is part of my DNA. I am the fifth generation of a family of Mysore sculptors associated with the royal family. I have seen my grandfather, Basavanna Shilpi, work with a silver hammer and gold chisel gifted by the Maharaja. I was only five when my grandfather died, but I have heard my parents reminisce that he would often say that of his 10 grandchildren, it was Arun who would carry forward his name as a
sculptor. My father, Yogiraj Shilpi, was also a renowned sculptor. Our workshop on Chamaraja Road in Mysore where he worked and encouraged apprenticeships, was attached to our large, rambling home.
I was, even as a toddler, fascinated by stones and under my father’s mentorship slowly mastered the technique of modelling, welding, chasing, and finishing. While studying business management, I spent a considerable amount of time in studying the nuances of anatomy. My first independent project came just by chance. A two-foot idol of Ayyappa was commissioned, but my father and other senior artists were not around to execute the work. I completed the statue, seeking Ayyappa’s blessings and began to receive acclaim for my realistic, figurative work.
Is there something that you still aspire to do?
Finishing the statue of Netaji was a definitive moment of my life. I feel it was also in a sense a new beginning. I aspire to transfer my knowledge to as many young creative minds as possible. I want to also continue to do projects that engage audiences, and are deep reflectors of India’s cultural and political history, and its unmatched knowledge traditions. On a lighter note, I want to sculpt with Carrara marble from the Italian Alps. From the days of the Roman Empire, this marble has challenged generations of artists. Phidias, Myron, Michelangelo, Bernini, Rodin, and countless other sculptors have used this translucent stone. It is my dream also to work on it.