A peek into Ram idol sculptor Arun Yogiraj's life through the eyes of his family

Arun Yogiraj is a master at bringing his imagination to life

60-Saraswati His mother, Saraswati, and wife, Vijetha Rao, in his workshop in Mysuru | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

ARUN YOGIRAJ, 38, has carved himself a special place in history. His sculpture of the lord Ram will be installed in the sanctum sanctorum of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya for pran prathishthan (consecration) on January 22.

Arun, who follows the Hoysala style of sculpting, has been carving idols for two decades. People admire his dedication, craftsmanship and the “divine charm” of his creations.

The Shri Ram Janmbhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust, which oversaw temple construction, had commissioned two other sculptors also for the main idol, G.L. Bhat of Bengaluru and Satyanarayan Pandey of Rajasthan. Arun’s work was finally chosen: a 51-inch idol of Ram as a five-year-old, standing and holding a bow and arrow.

The rare honour has Mysuru celebrating. People have been thronging Arun’s residence-cum-workshop in the heart of Mysuru, called Kashyapa Shilpakala Niketana, even though the sculptor is yet to return from Ayodhya.

“I am so proud of Arun; he has divine blessings,” said his mother, Saraswati. “I feel humbled that he got the opportunity to sculpt lord Ram’s idol at Ayodhya. I wish his father were alive to see this day.”

Arun is the youngest of three children of the famous sculptor Yogiraj Shilpi, whose father, B.S. Basavanna Shilpi, was a disciple of Shilpi Siddanti Siddalingaswamy, the sculptor and ‘rajguru’ of Mysuru kings.

Arun, who follows the Hoysala style of sculpting, has been carving idols for two decades. People admire his dedication, craftsmanship and the “divine charm” of his creations. He is an MBA.

He first received national attention for a 12ft statue of Adi Shankaracharya, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled at Kedarnath in November 2021. It was again Modi who unveiled Arun’s 28ft black granite sculpture of Subhas Chandra Bose at India Gate in 2022. Arun gifted Modi a miniature of the statue at the event.

The family has to its credit an impressive list of sculptures, such as the Ramakrishna Paramahamsa statue at Andolana Circle in Mysuru; the goddess Rajarajeshwari idol, Mumbai; the Shivakumaraswami idol at Siddaganga Mutt, Tumakuru; the Maharaja Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar statue in Mysuru; the monolithic stone sculpture of Hanuman at Chunchunakatte; a white marble sculpture of B.R. Ambedkar in Mysuru; and a stone sculpture based on the “creation of creation” concept at the University of Mysore. The Ayodhya project, however, was the most cherished, according to the family.

In January 2023, Arun received a call from the Union ministry of culture asking him to make a PowerPoint presentation on the Ayodhya statue. After he and two other artists were selected, he reached Ayodhya in June and began work in a tent assigned to his team.

Making stones speak: Arun Yogiraj at work. Making stones speak: Arun Yogiraj at work.

“He left for Ayodhya with five others,” said his wife, Vijetha M. Rao. “He had meticulously prepared for the project. He studied thousands of photographs of five-year-olds… He wanted the sculpture of young Ram to be both authentic and divine, as Ram was no ordinary child. I believe Arun saw a divine manifestation of the face of young Ram. It is the feeling people get when they look at idols carved by Arun.”

The family lives in a sprawling, old-fashioned house that Mysuru maharaja Sri Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar gifted to Basavanna Shilpi. Pointing to an idol of lord Ganesh in the living room, Saraswati said, “The idol was sculpted by my father-in-law. Many people, enamoured by its beauty and intricacy, offered him huge sums for it. But my father-in-law declined, saying he wanted to keep it to inspire his descendants.”

Basavanna was just 11 when he became a disciple of Shilpi Siddalingaswamy and began working for the royal family. His son Yogiraj, too, followed in his footsteps. Yogiraj trained many sculptors, including his two sons. A taskmaster and perfectionist, he was hard to impress. “For the first time, my father-in-law had tears in his eyes the day Arun completed the Shankaracharya sculpture,” recalled Vijetha.

Tragedy struck the family after Arun left for Kedarnath to instal the statue. “His father met with a fatal accident while returning from our farm,” said Saraswati. “He should have been alive to see this day.”

Arun had grown studying Yogiraj at work. “As a little boy, he would rush to the workshop every morning and marvel at how stone changed its form each day as his father worked on it,” said Saraswati.

Vijetha said Arun would lose himself in his work for hours at a stretch. “He is married to his art,” she said. “During his frequent visits to temples he would sit quietly, watching the architecture and people and their expressions.”

Animals, too. “He brings home abandoned animals, especially dogs,” she said. “Once, when he was sculpting a Nandi idol, he brought home a cow that was being taken to a slaughterhouse. He took very good care of it, and when the family insisted on giving it up, he started crying.”

Arun is a master at bringing his imagination to life. “He likes to work alone, especially in the brahma muhurta (early morning), when he finally sculpts the face of the idol,” said Surya Prakash, his brother. “People are spellbound to see the finishing, as the facial expression of the idol evokes a sense of divinity.”

On several occasions, he said, Arun himself was mesmerised by the divine charm of his sculptures. Said Vijetha: “Idols of the goddess Tripura Sundari and Adi Shankaracharya, which he carved with his father, are his favourites for emotional reasons.”

Arun enjoys teaching sculpting to youngsters. Every year, the Kashyapa Shilpakala Niketana takes in five students, providing them free food, accommodation and training.

“I have been learning under Arun sir for the past five years,” said Ajay Kumar, a 19-year-old who joined the workshop soon after completing class 10. “He tells me to do the finishing in such way that the idol looks divine from every angle. He advises us to spend as much time as possible with the stone to develop a bond.”