From Jail Cell to Family Man, the Rise of an Artist!

I met Balan on my 2nd trip to India in 2001. Balan was somewhat of a celebrity among the Indian stone artists of the small fishing village of Mamallipuram, India because he had a golden tongue that could seal the deal with any of the visiting tourists for exporting any of the furniture or statues they purchased locally.  His celebrity brought me knocking to his door one evening looking for someone to help me export the statues that I purchased for my budding company Lotus Sculpture.

He is a character taken right out of a Bollywood movie cast as the criminal or crime boss.

My first thought as I saw Balan was; “Thug”.  He is a broad boned, heavyset man with balding hair, gaps in his teeth, and skin the blackest color of night.  He is a character taken right out of a Bollywood movie cast as the criminal or crime boss.  I’m not going to say I trusted him immediately because I didn’t.  That took time.  His bachelor pad as he referred to it was a rented three-room space that was formerly the town jail complete with bars in the windows and that feeling that some unsavory things took place there.  This only assisted my first impressions of my future shipper.  Balan was also a budding artist who had two marble artists in his employment.  I looked at his marble work and was impressed.  That night we worked over some of the details of my export and his golden tongue went to work on me and I was won over by his sense of humor and keen business acumen.  Today he is my best friend in India.

Balan with his two daughters Adittya and Akash

With each passing year, Balan’s business has continued to grow.  From day one we forged a strong business relationship where I would pretty much buy every Hindu marble statue he produced.  I was his only customer.  His work he called “Masala statues” where he would mix together different aspects of different gods in poses that were not typical and never produced before.  His work was fresh and new and I loved it.  With each passing year I would see how much he had grown and each time he would thank me and tell me it was all from me.  I was, after all his only customer.  View Balan’s red marble and black marble Hindu Statues.

Now Balan is married to his wife of 6 years, Aril.  He has two adorable children, Akash 2, and Adittya 5, and a workshop of 30 men working for him.  Akash is an eater.  When I first held her she tried to bite me by taking a nibble out of my arm I guess it was her only defense against her older sister.  Addy is a talker and continually speaks to me in Tamil even though I don’t understand a word.  Both love photos and on each visit to the house they would take out pictures of me holding them when they were babies and keep putting them under my nose to look at.
Their little friends in the neighborhood call me the “big white man”.  Akash got very confused because she thought my name was “uncle”.  She asked Balan who is a “big white man”? in her high pitched little girl’s voice and we had a laugh over this.

My favorite days in India consist of sitting under his large Banyan tree he has in his workshop/home with Akash and Addy crawling around causing trouble, which is what we did this Sunday.  It was unbearably hot so we just stayed put and played with the kids as we talked about future plans for each other.  His workshop has grown so much in the past couple of years.  I am no longer his only customer.  He is building a temple in Mumbai and is starting on plans for a temple in London!  It is amazing how much has changed in 10 years.

Sometimes I feel like I have a double life.  I have my life in the USA consisting of my family and friends.  Then I have my life in Asia filled with a different group of family and friends.  Most of the artists I work with are similar in age to me and thus I have grown as they have grown.  As each has married and had children I have been there to see them as babies and watch them grow up.  Having Addy and Akash crawling around me like I am a jungle gym calling out “uncle” whenever they want to get my attention fills me with love for them.  The connection to my artists and their families only grows with each trip I take.  I am so thankful for having these special relationships halfway around the world.  They are my 2nd family and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Things have come so far since my first meeting with Balan in his bachelor-pad, jail cell home. My “thug” best friend has a beautiful family and business is great!  I couldn’t be happier for him!

Large Hanuman statue
Balan and I together with a seated Hanuman sculpture
Click here to View the Statues Balan Makes for Lotus Sculpture!


View All Kyle’s Stories from His Travels and Meet the Artists!

Meet Jew, Thai Buddha Artist
Travel to Bali
Stone Artists South India
Bronze in South India Artists
Meet Wood Artists
Kolkata Fiber Artists

Guru the Taxi Driver

On a rather sad note I found out that Guru, my taxi driver for the past 6 years, pictured on the right, passed away from a heart attack two months ago. He was one of the happiest people I have ever met. He was only about 4 foot 10 inches tall and had to reach down to touch the pedals of the car. He always had a big devilish grin on his face with big gaps in his teeth you could drive a car through. His main one liner to me was “Kyle, are you Happy?” as he winked, held his thumb up and smiled displaying his naughty grin. He did this about 5 times a day just to make sure I was happy…
The taxi rides of this trip were not the same without him. He was sorely missed.

Balan & Guru enjoy an afternoon Thali, lunch, while on a buying road trip in Mysore, India

The Kung Foo Brothers, Bronze in Swamimalai!

Varadaraj and I and some of his bronze creations

I met Vardaraj, Varun, and Sini 8 years ago in the first years of Lotus Sculpture. Varadaraj is the eldest, Varun is in the middle and Sini is the baby. They were three kids who just broke away from a bronze collective they were apprenticing at for the past ten years to start their own bronze collective. I was their first customer. Immediately I could see they were different. They were young, loved making bronze statues, and had big ideas for their future. I saw myself in them as we both were striving towards the same goals. In our first meeting I also discovered Varun, the middle-aged brother wanted to be in Kung foo movies. I still remember that exchange when he told me his future plans. “Like Jackie Chan!'”, he said eagerly. I made him repeat it several times as I really couldn’t believe my ears and in the end came the conclusion that this tall, muscular kid from Swamimalai had bigger dreams outside of the bronze casting business. Everyone can dream! From that day on my relationship and love for the Kung Foo Brothers, as I started to refer to them, has grown 100 fold. They are part of my Indian family!

23 foot Nataraja in mold
23 foot Nataraja is its earthen mold ready for casting!

Immediately I could see they were different than other bronze artists. They were young, loved making bronze statues and had big, ambitious plans for their future

Vardaraj, the oldest, had a different dream. Besides casting the best statues Swamimalai has to offer he wanted to make the world’s largest Nataraja statue. After arriving at his workshop this afternoon I saw how close he is to realizing his dream. The Nataraja is ready for casting! The Nataraja is 23 feet tall and will weigh a total of 10 tons of pure bronze! View this amazing Nataraja! After we climbed over the enormous mold of the Nararaja I then moved inside to view my, more modest bronze statues. They are experts at the Nataraja form and I took in the 4 Natarajas I commissioned. Each a perfect representation of Shiva’s dance of destruction. In each statue, Shiva is suspended upon the prostrate dwarf, Apasmara, like he is flying, light as a feather. In my opinion, there is no statue form as fine as a Nataraja with perfect proportions. It will always take a little of my breath away to see a masterpiece Nataraja as Varadaraj is so adept at creating!

Varun and Varadaraj working on a wax model of Ravendra
Varun and Varadaraj working on a wax model of Ravendra

I spent two days with the family and enjoyed their youthful, smiling mother’s, “Mama’s” cooking for lunch each day. It is always my favorite meal in India a mixture of prawn curry, chicken masala, and coconut rice that is impossible to find made with such love at any restaurant. I bought them an iPhone which we spent a couple of hours figuring out the inner workings to the phone. I love watching the interplay between the three brothers. They are so close I really think they can read the mind of each other. Whenever they are sitting together they have an arm over each other’s shoulder, whispering into the others’ ear. I often feel like I am intruding as their exchanges feel so private and personal.

While roaming around the now 30 workers Varadaraj now has working for him, I took many videos of the lost wax method process to show in more detail how south Indian bronze statues are made. The process is incredibly long and tedious with 5 separate steps. I thought video is the best way to illustrate with bronze statue making process. People oftentimes say the prices of bronze are too high on Lotus Sculpture. I know that when one fully understands the entire process and the overall work that goes into the making of one bronze statue you will wonder why they are so inexpensive! I will be adding these and many other videos to our site and youtube channel in the coming weeks.

By far my favorite piece of news I have received on this trip was that Varun has received a role as the hero in an action film in Chennai that starts filming in two months!!! He will be a Kung foo hero, like Jackie Chan!!! I literally jumped off the ground when he told me this. I am so happy for him. I love it when people have dreams and make them into realities. The Kung foo brothers are dreamers and I am very happy to call them my friends.

Click here to View South Indian Bronze Murtis Made by Varadaraj and His Brothers


View All Kyle’s Stories from His Travels and Meet the Artists!

Meet Jew, Thai Buddha Artist
Meet Balan, Indian Artist
Travel to Bali
South India Stone Artists
Meet Wood Artists
Kolkata Fiber Artists

Owls in Bronze Country, Finding New Wood Artists!

I have just been looking over my photos from the small town where I buy my wood statues. Is it me or do Indians try to look as mean as they possibly can when taking pictures? I have always noticed this how some very happy people can suddenly turn their normally smiling faces into vacant spaces where their smile used to reside. Back to the wood…

As usual I have over done myself. I bought entirely too much wood. Way too much wood. Heaps and heaps of wood statues! It is a problem I have. I can never say no to a good statue.

Finally I have met my Hindu wood artists!

It took me 5 years of searching to find the small village where the majority of wood statues in India are produced. I met Natarajan (the unsmiling man to my right to the right of the nataraja statue) 4 years ago and have been dealing with him ever since. To be honest he is not my favorite artist to deal with. Nearly half of each visit is spent discussing price, something that after dealing with each other for 4 years should have taken a back seat by now… But his work is fantastic! Last year I ordered many larger statues that were finally completed this year. There is one 8 foot by 3 foot Ravana panel that is simply amazing as well as a 5 foot nataraja pictured above that I couldn’t take my eyes off of. In total I bought 10 statues over 7 feet. In the past ten years Lotus Sculpture has only carried 3 statues over 7 feet so this is big difference in our offerings. View a video of the wood carvers as they carve a Hindu God from wood.

I can never say “no” to a good statue

The heat has been borderline unbearable. Especially when you get away from the coast and take away the breeze. I was happy to leave Natarajan and head to Swamimalai Bronze country!

Muthu, although always smiling in person, his charm tends to fade in front of a camera

After a sticky 5 hour ride I arrived in Swamimalai and went directly to Muthu’s shop. Muthu is a lively old chap who doesn’t speak a lick of english but we get along just fine. His good cheer is infectious and a smile almost always on his face, with the exception of posing for pictures of course. He has run the bronze collective in the same house that his father ran before him. He now has three sons, two of which are working with him carrying on the family traditions that is part of the culture of Swamimalai. Swamimalai is known throughout India as the place where temple bronzes are made. For 10 years I have been coming here and I am now am familiar with most of the artists. Most I simply cannot deal with because they only see the color of my skin and thus the price increases by double. Muthu is a departure from normal bronze artists in that he sees me for me, rather than a walking dollar bill. For this I am grateful as I don’t ever have to question his pricing. His work speaks for itself. He has cast some amazing bronze Ganesh statues that are yet to be completed but I can tell they are going to be fantastic. I also bought from him a full set of the 32 forms of Ganesh that are 6″ tall. I have never seen the full set before and I practically jumped out of my skin when I saw them all. He also cast a beautiful 27″ Nataraja statue as well as a 30″ Krishna statue with a beautiful bronze that he has newly designed. I can’t wait for them to arrive in the warehouse in California!

After a long day I then went to eat in my favorite parotha shop. View parotha video. A parotha is a croissant-like flaky flat bread that you dip in some type of meat based sauce, usually chicken, that I can never get enough of. I then sat for 20 minutes looking up at 4 adolescent owls that are living in the attic of a building across the street from the parotha shop as they made calls for their mother to feed them. It was such a weird contrast to see 4 very wild animals living directly above the bustling streets….Life is everywhere in India!

Click here to View Hindu Wood Statues
Hand Carved by Natarajan!

View All Kyle’s Stories from His Travels and Meet the Artists!

Meet Jew, Thai Buddha Artist
Meet Balan, Indian Artist
Travel to Bali
South India Stone Artists
Bronze South India Artists
Kolkata Fiber Artists

Cheeky Little Teagu

Today I have made a new friend!

I first noticed Teagu a week ago when I first arrived in India. He runs a vegetable stand next to my favorite place to eat lunch in the small seaside fishing village of Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu. He was using one of his vegetables, a large eggplant to hit an older lady over the head with it as she tried to haggle on either the price or quality of his veggies or perhaps both…granted that this shopkeeper is not a man but a 10 year old boy. I eat in this small restaurant for lunch everyday I am in Mamallapuram and everyday I see some odd behavior from this precocious little boy. He is constantly scurrying over his vegetables, running to the back to pick out some tomatoes, throwing some okra onto the scale to be weighed all the while yelling at his customers with blinding speed. And each customer listens. The boy packs a vocal punch!

Today I was leaving the restaurant as usual and saw some of the fattest bananas I have seen in my life that little Teagu was selling. I wanted them for a later snack and I wanted to meet this little Maharaja of Mamallapuram. I pick out my bananas while he was scolding some old woman wearing a green sari who was waiving a cucumber at him. He picked up another cucumber and again used his patented “hit your customer on her head” trick with her which was a signal that the conversation was over and she went on her way. The whole time this kid is smiling with his gleaming set of white teeth at both her and the others waiting, myself included. I take out my camera to try to take a couple of shots of him. I get off two shots before he hops over the counter and deftly takes the camera from me and turns the camera back on me. I loved him for this! He took many shots of me all the while Im trying to tell him which button to push and how to zoom in on things.  We then go back to his stall and go thru the pictures we took of each other. His face beaming with joy at the pictures. He introduces himself as “Teagu” as he puts his hand over his chest. I do the same and then we part.

That is the seed that makes you want to come back again and again to have other magic memories of traveling

I know our little exchange will be in my mind forever. Some traveling experiences have that little piece of magic that firmly plants the seed of a memory in your head that you will always go back to when you thinking of your travel. That is the seed that makes you want to come back again and again to have other magic memories of traveling. This will always be a part of me. I don’t think I can stop traveling for this reason, Teagu and others like him…

I have the feeling I am going to see Teagu a lot over the years and maybe even get hit in the head with some vegetables too.

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