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
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!
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 worlds 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 my 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!
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 each others mind. Whenever they are sitting with together they have an arm over each others 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 often times 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 whey they are so inexpensive! I will 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 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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
I first came to South India as a backpacker when I was 24. When Lotus Sculpture was just a budding idea in my head I had the good fortune to initially meet some of the artists that would help shape my ideas for what I wanted to do in my life. I have happily spent the day with two of the people who have had a profound effect on me and Lotus Sculpture: Murugan and Baskaran. When I first meet Baskaran I was full of energy thinking of the possibilities for what we could do together. Of course he took me for just another tourist with big ideas who he would never see again. Except 3 months later I was in his shop again buying statues from him and thus our business relationship was born! His star worker was a sculptor named, Murugan. Murugan has since started his own shop and now I actively buy stone sculpture from both Baskaran and Murugan. Both Baskaran and Murugan are the best stone artists in my opinion in all of India. They have the uncanny ability to transform stone into a living, breathing Hindu God!
I arrived at Murugan’s workshop early in the morning. I was happy to hear from him that he has started construction on a new home for himself. I have been keeping some of the money I owe Murugan in my account. He told me today, “If I had it here I would spend it. I wanted to save it for my house. if it is with you I cant spend it.” We spoke of future plans for some statues I have in mind. I believe I will be ordering three statues that are all 4 feet tall, a meditating Shiva, a Japanese Buddha and an Avalokiteshvara statue. I love his meditating Shiva statues and I think I may be keeping his next creation for my home.
They have the uncanny ability to transform stone into a living, breathing Hindu God!
I then crossed the road to Baskaran’s workshop. Baskaran is doing quite well for himself. He now has 50 employees! When I first saw him he had only 10! He spoke to me about how hard it is to find employees. How many of his workers have left his shop because in construction or other unskilled labor jobs they are paying more salary. So many of the faces that I have seen over the years are no longer working with him.
Baskaran carves the most unbelievable Buddhas and Ganeshas I have seen in India! The Buddhas are simply stunning and the Ganeshas make you want to just hug them. I ordered 2 large Buddha sculptures from him last year. There are some minor changes we needed to do; polishing the skin and making lotus bases. I hope to have the statues ready and in Oceanside, CA by September 2012.
Tomorrow I am taking a 5 hour ride into central Tamil Nadu to visit the small village where they carve wood. I will meet the brooding Natarajan and his brother who are the main artists of the village. I am looking forward to seeing the sculptures that I ordered from them. Hopefully they will be completed.
By the way it is hot. H-O-T, HOT! 5 hours inland it will be even hotter than it is here by the sea shore.
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