for ISKCON News on Oct. 29, 2010
Akhilananda Dasa (in the yellow shirt) with some happy customers and their new home altar
Growing up in the small town of Salem, Ohio, Alfred Fitch was always tinkering; practicing, although he didn’t know it yet, for his future self’s unique profession—building beautiful altars for homes and temples all over the USA and the world.
From the age of seven, he would build model airplanes and rockets, take apart and reassemble items around the house, and make his own molds by pouring plaster into raccoons’ footprints by the creek near his country home. He was also a good hand at carpentry—his paternal grandfather was a framer—and drawing and painting—his maternal grandfather was a fine artist.
Al’s training continued as a young man when, after spells as a counterculture activist, Vietnam war protester, hitchhiker and spiritual searcher, he joined ISKCON in 1971 and moved into the society’s Cleveland temple.
At only 21 years old, Al—now initiated by ISKCON’s founder Srila Prabhupada as Akhilananda Dasa—became the temple’s one and only maintenance man.
A natural handyman, he fixed the boiler, the lights, the plumbing, the toilets, and, after taking a mechanic’s course at the local college, the cars, too. He even helped gut and rebuild the entire temple room, adding a new tile floor, dry wall, sound insulation—and his first ever altar.
In 1973, it seemed as if Akhilananda would get a chance to develop his artistic side, when Srila Prabhupada requested that two devotees from every ISKCON temple be sent to Mayapur, India to learn the ancient Putul art of doll-making. He wanted them to make dioramas of Lord Krishna’s and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s pastimes to fulfill the desire of his guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati.
“I really wanted to go, and even got a tentative okay,” Akhilananda recalls. “I had got my shots and my passport and everything. Then suddenly the temple president said, ‘Oh, we need a new furnace. You can’t go. You’ll have to stay and install it.’”
So the dream was forgotten for a few years. Akhilananda married, and moved from Cleveland to Ann Harbor, Michigan, where he continued doing temple maintenance as well as some handywork for the general public to support himself and his wife.
Then came a new opportunity. In 1977, Akhilananda heard that ISKCON artists such as Bharadraja, Adideva, and Lochan were establishing a diorama museum called the First American Transcendental Exhibition (FATE) in Los Angeles. Wanting to help, he called them up.
“They didn’t need any more artists, but they did need a mold-maker,” says Akhilananda. “I told them, ‘I can do that,’ even though I wasn’t really sure if I could—the extent of my previous experience had been making molds of raccoon’s footprints as a child. But I had taught myself just about everything else, so I thought, ‘How hard can it be?’”
He packed up his little family—he now had a son, Mrikanda, and a daughter, Jahnavi (now Jvala-Mukhi Dasi)—and travelled to California to join FATE studios. As well as helping create the dioramas there, he also worked with sculptor Lochan Dasa, molding and producing over thirty life-sized Srila Prabhupada murti forms, which were shipped out to temples all over the world and are still worshiped today.
Akhilananda’s next project was Detroit’s FATE museum, where he molded more stunning dioramas of Krishna’s pastimes, and constructed technical features including a turntable that revolved the Changing Bodies and Birth of Lord Krishna exhibitions. Both FATE museums were a big draw and are still being used today.
“In 1984, I moved back to my home town of Salem, Ohio to help take care of my father, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s,” Akhilananda says. “By then, we had had two more children—Rasikananda and Krishnaa—and I spent the next twelve years supporting my family with my own handyman contracting business called Al Fix It.”
It wasn’t until 1996—after remarrying to Jean Marie, a Catholic woman favorable to Krishna consciousness—that Akhilananda finally got to visit India. Upon returning, another dream of his was fulfilled. He heard that Desire Tree Studios—a devotee business operating out of New Vrindaban that made altars for homes and temples—was for sale, and purchased it almost immediately.
“I had always been interested in reproducing those beautiful highly carved teakwood altars from India,” he says. “I would sit in Bhagavatam class drawing their incredible detail. So I was delighted that Krishna had given me a chance to do that.”
Akhilananda began to produce a home altar called “the Rasa-lila,” which, at 27 inches wide and 42 inches high, was perfect for any home Deities and extremely popular with members of the Hindu community. Its beautifully carved domes, pillars, and bases featured ornate floral detail, and its shining gold and silver look was achieved through a special process pioneered in ISKCON by the New Vrindaban devotees and kept a closely guarded secret.
“I also made, and still make, altars for ISKCON temples,” says Akhilananda. “My first was a three-section, eleven-foot wide altar for Sri-Sri Gaura Nitai, Sri-Sri Radha-Madhava, and Sri Nathji in Phoneix, Arizona in 1997. I also built a custom Rasa-lila altar for the Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra in Columbus, Ohio, and a five-foot wide altar with a faux wood finish and a marble base for Indranuja Dasa in Kansas, who used his home as a temple and held regular Krishna conscious gatherings there.”
Akhilananda’s distinctive altars are familiar to devotees all over the US. And in the past eight years, they’ve become even more recognizable as regular congregational gatherings in devotees’ homes, called nama-hatta or bhakti-vriksha, have increased, and with them, the purchase of altars to create a more spiritual atmosphere.
Akhilananda has also made altars for the greater Hindu community, including a huge, 21 feet wide, five section altar for the Swami Narayana temple in Cleveland. He’s built even bigger altars—24 feet across—for the Laksmi Narayana temple in Queens, New York, and its sister temple in Orlando, Florida.
Not stopping at altars, he’s also tried his hand at original sculpting work—such as the eight-foot high spire and fluted lotus flower atop the ISKCON temple in Spanish Fork, Utah—and even Ratha Yatra carts.
“Four years ago, I built a simple cart for the Ratha Yatra festival in Cleveland,” he says. “The following year, I built a full-sized cart—eight by fifteen feet—with five-foot steel welded wheels, and a telescoping canopy lift, with a canopy my wife Jean had sewn. Word got out, and now we’re doing seven Rathayatras a year: in Cleveland, New Vrindaban, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Queens, the Columbus day Parade, and a small parade in Salem.”
Akhilananda doesn’t even stop at Vaishnava or Hindu projects. He’s also created a series of six large columns and Gothic arches, spanning about sixteen feet, for the local Catholic church that he and his wife attend. He’s even repaired religious statues of Jesus and Mary in several Catholic churches in the greater Northeastern Ohio area that suffered damage from weather or vandalism.
“Vandals had pushed over a sculpture of Mary and baby Jesus, and mother Mary’s head had been broken off,” he says. “So I resculpted her chin and lips, replaced little Christ’s missing arm and hand, and installed a special steel system that went in the ground so that the vandals couldn’t push them over anymore.”
Today, Akhilananda works from a rented studio in Salem, simply called Al Fitch Art Studio. He creates his altars by casting gypsum plaster modified with fiberglass reinforcement into silicone rubber molds of traditional Indian carvings. Using a large compressor, he then sprays the full altar with a lacquer finish.
Finally, he takes the whole structure apart and paints each piece before fitting the altar back together again.
Many of Akhilananda’s altars have unique features: on some, it’s hand-sculpted eight-inch-tall lotus flowers; on others, it’s a base fitted with caster wheels, so that the whole altar can roll out away from the wall; and on still others, it’s elephant’s head sculptures created by his daughter Jvala Mukhi.
In fact, Akhilananda’s whole business is a bit of a family effort: his wife, Jean Marie, has her own business, but also helps him finish, airbrush, and sand, as well as lending a hand with the paperwork. Over the years, they’ve made nearly one hundred altars, both small and large.
“Some people may wonder why I’m making a business out of building altars,” Akhilananda says. “And I would answer, I must keep body and soul together, and it is fulfilling a great need. Many times we’ve heard complaints about the altars imported from India falling apart, so people are happy to get good quality, durable altars locally made by an ISKCON devotee.”
For Akhilananda, his job is also a very Krishna conscious experience. “I’m here creating sacred sculptures, listening to Srila Prabhupada’s tapes, and working for devotees,” he says. “So my whole consciousness is totally meditating on devotional service, in a very practical way.”
The spirituality of Akhilananda’s business also affects others, bringing them to ask questions or simply appreciate the altars. “Sometimes I’ll have to set them up outdoors, and people in my home town will ask, ‘What is that beautiful sculpture?’” he says. “Often, my suppliers will ask, ‘What do you use our products for?’
And when I show them a photo, they’re amazed and ask if they can have a copy.”
Akhilananda gives Prabhupada’s books, prasadam, and incense to most customers when he delivers his altars. He also produces golden footprints of Srila Prabhupada which he gives out for donations or for gifts, as well as footprints of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu originally acquired from the holy town of Puri in India.
“I would certainly encourage other devotees to develop their own business like this to serve the Vaishnava community,” he says. “Whatever people need, devotees can provide with their own businesses. And it’s very satisfying to make a living doing something you love, while also knowing that you’re working for people who are sincere worshippers of God.”
And there’s plenty of business out there, he assures. “Our community is pretty big. We’ve been hired by people across the United States—in Los Angeles, Utah, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, West Virginia—and abroad, too, in Canada, Puerto Rico, and even Tibet and India. What’s more, advertising isn’t difficult. It’s mostly just word of mouth—there are about 200 guests at even your average Hindu home altar opening, and each one will ask, ‘Where did you get that?’ That’s the best kind of advertising there is.”
Although he’s slowing down now at sixty years old and after two heart-attacks, Akhilananda is still working—he’s currently making a large three-section altar for a devotee couple in Potomac, Maryland, to do their home programs.
In the meantime, he has plenty of extra services and hobbies: he takes photographs, visits inmates in prison with Srila Prabhupada’s books, does some palliative care for senior Vaishnavas, and can even be seen at many Rathayatras playing the trumpet.
“Lord Krishna and Srila Prabhupada are my inspiration and my guides,” he says. “And as long as they want me to, I will continue with my work.”
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