Tucked in between the small dense apartments of Pallikaranai is a quaint studio with antique paraphernalia, rare books and glimmering statues of political and historic leaders—of varied sizes between ten inches to seven feet tall. “Sillaii,” Arun Titan enunciates, “No matter which part of the world you come from, the pronunciation is more or less the same.” He gleams with passion as he speaks about how Silaii, since its inception in 2019, was always intended to become a global sculpture-making brand.
Arun was considered a dunce at school—”Very much like the boy from the movie ‘Taare Zameen Par’,” he describes, “In fact, I failed 12th grade and came back to complete it only because I wanted to join the Fine Arts School in Chennai—where completing school was a requirement.”
College life was a new chapter. Arun found his passion in visual design and was determined to excel. He had finally found a place where he belonged. “The campus was multidisciplinary and offered courses in sculpting, printmaking, visual design, ceramic art and painting,” he explains, “Even though visual design was my major, I got to learn a little bit of everything else too.” This was the inception of Arun’s fascination for sculptures.
In the year 2012, the young artist quit his full-time job at Zoho to dabble in his passion for street and documentary photography. “I had to do wedding shoots on the side for survival,” he adds with a hint of humour. As his career progressed, he bagged a series of Kollywood gigs including promos for the movie Cuckoo, Gypsy, the Vijay Awards, Zee Awards and the Behindwoods Gold Medals. He had even become Maestro A.R. Rahman’s go-to photographer.
On the side, he ran the Vidhai Art Space where he would invite photographers and artists to speak about their journeys and philosophies. “It was around 2019, I invited Chandru Guruswamy to talk about his work. He was the Principal of the Fine Arts College and an esteemed sculptor,” Arun recalls. The event led him to continue close interactions with the professor.
“One day, he invited me over to his studio in Ambai,” he resumes. It was early January. Arun stayed at the sculptor’s abode during their travels. “It was a large house with traces of sculpting material creating a rustic aesthetic,” he describes. As the trip was nearing its end, the sculptor disappeared into his studio and came back with a small object clasped in his hands. It was a Periyar statue, about ten inches tall, with the words ‘for Arun’ etched on its side. “I had just begun to read about Periyar then, so I was flattered by the gesture,” he says as he scopes through his collection to show us the artefact.
The gesture sparked an ‘aha’ moment. Arun would start selling sculptures. Photography, though it was his passion, was hard to scale as every shoot depended on his presence. This time, he would leave the art to the professionals and focus on the business. “Sir agreed to mentor me through the process,” says the entrepreneur as he chuckles, “I spent the journey back to Chennai mentally building Silaii.”
Within a week Silaii was incorporated, the import-export certificate and GST were registered and an account was opened. Next in line was to find more sculptors to collaborate with. Arun was scouting and networking with local artists during his travels for shoots when it dawned upon him that none of the sculptors could imagine the scale that he was dreaming of.
As a result, he hired two people to help him do case studies. They dove into the regional origin of sculpting, material studies, the issues in the process and the evolution of techniques. “The next nine months of my travel doubled as a study of the statue industry across the globe,” he chuckles as he describes the types of collectibles that are available in each country.
Arun was convinced. He believed that three-dimensional sculptures had the potential to recreate memories better than their two-dimensional counterparts. “Everyone has photographs of their family, pet or a celebrity. Imagine if we could experience the subject in three dimensions,” he says as his eyes grow wider behind his round glasses, “For instance let’s say we have a statue of an ancestor. You can touch and feel the statue to understand that this is how their ears hung or that is how they used to braid their hair with flowers,” he explains gesturing in the air in front of him.
Scalability was key. Silaii receives an average of hundred requests every day. Traditional clay and stone sculpting techniques would not allow Sillaii to iterate and produce the same quality in high volumes. It was inevitable to mechanise the process to enable large-scale manufacture. Arun decided he would leverage technology to bring the best of both worlds.
The statue is cast with high-quality powdered stone imported from the US. The final product undergoes a chemical process to regain its original strength, durability and a hundred-year lifespan. The process has enabled custom statues to be designed and manufactured within a period of two months. The team of 35 at the Madipakkam factory will scale to 82 by the end of the year when the new larger factory in Tambaram nears completion.
Social media proved to be a boon to most businesses born during the pandemic. It was no different for Sillai during its formative years. The concept of immortalising public figures through statues was a raging success. However, the popularity brought the brand under the radar of online regulatory bodies. Silaii’s social accounts were seized under the presumption that they were involved in an online political campaign. At this point, Arun pauses to explain the importance of separating beliefs from the business. “I sell what sells, not what I believe in,” he says firmly. The company had lost all of its data and had to build its accounts from the ground up. This time they would keep a backup of all of their data.
The incident provoked Arun to take Silaii offline. The metrics from his digital marketing analytics proved that people who liked to read were most likely to be interested in buying a sculpture. “After all, I only understood the importance of the historic and political leaders we make statues of after reading about them,” he adds. Silaii went into retail and featured amidst books and handicrafts at Odyssey, Poombuhar and the Chennai Book Fair. “Tamil Nadu is rooted,” he reveals, “It isn’t as easy to find as many public figures from the other states.”
Silaii grew with prominent projects that involved making merchandise for Master (a Kollywood film starring Vijay) and a miniature replica of the Assembly Building that was presented to President Ramnath Kovinth by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister.
“The products from Silaii have been delivered to nearly every PIN code in India and thirty-eight countries worldwide,” says the entrepreneur. He reveals that they are in talks with parties in Australia, South America and North America to expand retail while also being available on Amazon Global. There is more to come from the quaint studio in Pallikaranai. The founder hints at a future plan to design toys using the same sculpting process. Arun, like his studio, is buzzing with ideas and unafraid to innovate as he constantly recalibrates to strike a balance between creative pursuits and profitability.