Radhacharan Dasa: The Deity Designer

By Madhava Smullen for ISKCON News on 17 Dec 2010
It all began for Yves Ayoun when, as a young boy growing up in Paris in the early 1970s, he was instantly drawn to the ISKCON devotees that he regularly saw chanting Hare Krishna on the streets of the French capital.

Krishna deity DesignerIt all began for Yves Ayoun when, as a young boy growing up in Paris in the early 1970s, he was instantly drawn to the ISKCON devotees that he regularly saw chanting Hare Krishna on the streets of the French capital.

Although he was too young to join them quite yet, the attraction remained, and at eighteen he traveled to India, where he met them and found out more about their spiritual path.

Returning to France, he joined ISKCON in 1977 in his early twenties—shortly before ISKCON’s founder Srila Prabhupada passed away—and received the name Radhacharan Dasa.

When he visited the Paris temple for the first time, it was the beautiful Deities of Sri Sri Radha-Paris-Ishvara that had the strongest impact on him.

“The whole atmosphere of the temple room was like being in a completely different world, but it was the Deities—the way they were dressed, the way they looked—that was the catalyst for me to start practicing Krishna consciousness,” he says now. “And although I travelled around distributing books, as most new devotees did in those days, I always looked forward to going back to the temple to see the Deities.”

As soon as he received brahmana initiation—ordination as a Vaishnava priest—he begged to be allowed to do Deity-worship full-time. For many years, he served as a priest at temples in Paris, the New Mayapur rural community, and later in Vrindavana India, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Australia, where he moved in 1988.

Even while serving as the late ISKCON guru Tamal Krishna Goswami’s secretary throughout the 1990s, he continued to dress the Deities at the various temples to which he traveled whenever he had any free time.

So when Tamal Krishna Goswami took up residence at Cambridge Unversity at the end of the 1990s, and Radhacharan decided to settle down and start a business venture, he naturally gravitated towards ideas related to Deities.

Attending trade shows in Hong Kong and China, he became sure that he could start a business making and selling “Hindu figurines”—essentially sacred “murti” forms of Krishna and other worshipable Deities.

“I soon got a request from an Indian life member in the UK who wanted to have 10,000 murtis made of baby Krishna stealing butter,” he says. “So myself and my godsister and business partner Visakha Priya Dasi looked for manufacturers in China and found one company who did a fantastic job making the first batch of 10,000. And the rest is history.”

In 1999, the two established Velina Designs. Radhacharan would come up with a design for a particular figurine, bring pictures and photos of deities to the
manufacturers in China, and coach their artists about how he wanted the finished product to look.

“The Chinese artists are very gifted,” says Radhacharan. “But of course they knew absolutely nothing about these deities, so we had to—and still have to—direct them very carefully. Sometimes they get it right straight away in one go, and sometimes it can take weeks or even months. They may forget where to put a brahmana thread, or which hand should carry which weapon.”

Because of this unfamiliarity, Velina Designs’ Radha Krishna set took six months to get right, Radhacharan explains. “They would make Radha and Krishna look like Lakshmi Narayan, and I wanted them to be in a Vrindavana, village mood,” he says. “When they eventually did get it right however, they did a perfect job.”
Dedicated to perfection, Radhacharan and Visakha Priya coach the artists in not only the look, but also the mood of the sacred figures they are creating.
“We would bring them CDs, photos, videos, Prabhupada’s books—anything that would give them a complete idea of how the murti should be shaped,” Radhacharan says.

Both Visakha-Priya and Radhacharan visit the manufacturer’s factory often to oversee production and ensure quality control. Visakha-Priya, who lives in Hong Kong, visits at least once a month, and comes dressed in a sari and tilak with gifts of food and flower garlands offered to the Hong Kong Deities.

“The management of the factory have always been kind enough to accommodate the fact that what we’re doing is not just another gift item, but actually a religious item,” Radhacharan says. “So we’ve made cultural presentations, showing slide shows on a big screen to all the staff at night—which is great entertainment for the Chinese factory workers, who live in the factory and don’t go home at night. We’ve also cooked a big feast for the entire factory staff—500 people—on several occasions.”

As a result of all these visits, some of the workers have become vegetarian, some have chanted Hare Krishna, and others are reading Prabhupada’s books.
“It’s had an amazing impact on their lives, and it actually affects the way they work on the deities too,” Radhacharan says.

Of course, the work itself also has a powerful impact. “We did a 25” set of Radha and Krishna in the mood of Vrindaban, which was molded by a husband and wife couple—he designed Radha and she designed Krishna,” says Radhacharan. “Every time I go to the factory to look at the production line, it’s very moving to see all these people, sitting and painting Krishna all day.”

All of Velina Designs’ murtis are made of a composite mixture of ceramic powder and resin, put into a silicone mold, and hardened, after which every single figure is hand-painted. Sizes range from 2.5” to a maximum of 25”, and the company is currently selling around 800 different designs.

“We have a range for each famous ‘Hindu’ deity,” says Radhacharan. “There’s Krishna, Rama, Hanuman, Lakshmi, Sarasvati, Shiva, Ganesh, and more. Each range has many different designs—for instance there is Krishna as a baby, Krishna with Radha, Krishna dancing on Kaliya, Krishna with the cows, etc.”

95% of Velina Designs’ business is with the international Hindu community, who worship the murtis on their altars, and also use them to bring auspiciousness to weddings and religious functions. The company is also starting to cater to the yoga and new age communities, who use them more as ornaments, although this is a much smaller percentage.

“We’ve sold close to one million murtis in the last ten years,” Radhacharan says. “We ship container loads from China to Malaysia, Fiji, New Zealand, Canada, Europe—everywhere. I also ship wholesale from Melbourne, where I am based.”
ISKCON gift shops, while a very small percentage of Velina Designs’ clients, also sell their murtis. England’s Bhaktivedanta Manor are their biggest customer, ordering not only items for their gift shop, but also around 40,000 Krishna murtis—of a different design each year—to give away to donors every Janmastami.

Velina also caters exclusively to ISKCON with their “Happy Doll Project,” launched three years ago. This is a series of 5” Gaura-Nitai deities sold to temples in bulk at cost price, and then given out to the general public by book distributors along with Srila Prabhupada’s books.

“Happy Doll is a term that Srila Prabhupada gave to Gaura Nitai, while outlining a plan to his disciple Dhananjaya Dasa to ‘market Gaura Nitai worldwide,’” Radhacharan explains. “He actually gave him the whole business plan, and we have taken it up. ISKCON guru Bir Krishna Goswami fell in love with the project, and has encouraged his disciples to participate in it, but now it’s catching on everywhere. So far, we’ve sold about 25,000 Gaura Nitais. Some temples buy a lot—ISKCON Manipur purchased 2,000 to install in individual congregational members’ homes.”

Next year, Radhacharan will hand over management of his Melbourne warehouse to another devotee and semi-retire, to spread Krishna consciousness around the world, as well as to increase his business by traveling and meeting people.
He strongly encourages other devotees to start a business selling Velina Designs’ products, which he says he can train them to set up.

“During the 1990s, when I was traveling around with Tamal Krishna Goswami, I thought, ‘I need to prepare for my retirement—I’m in my forties, and I don’t want to be dependent on ISKCON in my old age,” he says. “So I did, and now I’m retiring, and will be able to teach Krishna consciousness, peaceful in the knowledge that I have some income to support myself. So I encourage other devotees to take up this business and supply people in their part of the world. It’s very fulfilling and you can generate a good income.”

For Radhacharan, the business also absorbs and inspires him in Krishna consciousness.

“I jumped straight from temple life into running a business, and found that I was so busy I couldn’t go to the temple every day, or do as much service,” he says. “But here I am, sitting in my office, surrounded by hundreds of murtis. There’s an entire wall of Krishna murtis in front of me, so my eyes are on Lord Krishna all day.
“It’s a wonderful job to have.”

For more information or to order a catalogue, please visit www.velinadesigns.com. Devotees interested in ordering “Happy Doll” Gaura Nitais or selling Velina
Designs products can contact Radhacharan Dasa at radhacharan.tkg@gmail.com.

Posted in In the News.