Sunday, February 18, 2007

Chola Bronzes

Oh Lord Shiva
On that day when you looked at me
You enslaved me
In grace entered me
And out of love
melted me

Thiruvachakam Hymn 38

These words of Manikkavachakar, printed in reverse on the lac coloured walls of the Sackler Wing, The Royal Academy of Arts, London greet those who have come to see Chola: Sacred Bronzes of Southern India.

I came to know of the exhibition late last year, on a northbound Jubilee line train home. As it pulled in to Westminster station I briefly looked up from the book I was reading and my gaze settled on an image that was all at once familiar. The curved windows seemed to hardly contain the large muscular thigh, gracefully wrought in bronze. I didn’t even need to bend down and look at the rest of the image. It was Lord Nataraja, engaged in his eternal cosmic dance encircled by a ring of flames.

It is the very same sculpture that stands below the above stanza and is the first in a series of 23 Chola sculptures which have been divided in to three broad categories – Shiva Imagery, Saivite Saints and Vishnu Imagery. The exhibits - all utsavamurtis or festival images, are made using the cire perdue or lost wax technique wherein the sculptor or sthapathi fashions various units of the idol using beeswax and shal tree resin down to the very last detail before dropping them in to cold water to harden them. This model is then covered with layers of coarse clay and baked. When heated, the wax melts and (hence the name of the method) runs out of holes in the plaster. Molten pancha loha (an alloy of 5 metals – zinc, lead, gold, silver and copper) is then poured into the space formerly occupied by the wax.

Utsavamurtis are used on auspicious and festival days when they are taken around the temple courtyard and tank in a procession. The figures are always dressed for the occasion, wrapped in resplendent silks, glittering in jewels and redolent with the fragrance of garlands made of rose, jasmine, marigold and lotus. Devotees are lucky if they can glimpse the statue’s face or a hand raised in benediction. Even when they are in repose, the utsavamurtis are dressed, though not in such a grand manner.

In stark contrast, the statues in the exhibition have been stripped of ceremonial garb. They stand as on the day they were created, but smoother and a little worn after centuries of being anointed with milk and sandalwood.

It is an altogether breathtaking and rare experience. The chance to stand as close and for as long as one likes to these expressions of divinity does not come along frequently. After all, I have spent hours crushed in thronging temple crowds, waiting, anticipating that moment when the procession - all at once chaotic, divine, majestic and haphazard - will turn the corner and come down the path overflowing with the faithful. Torn between the desire to bend ones head in reverence or look up so that the eyes may seek out what lies beneath the royal splendour.

Here one can stand for hours on end and study the sinuous, sensuous curves of these sculptures which are on loan from The Cleveland Museum of Art, The National Museum Delhi, The British Museum and The MOMA, New York among others.

From his matted dreadlocks to the ever so slight upturn of his lips, Shiva is a study in wild abandonment yet one knows that he is fully in control of both his movements and the universe he perpetually creates and destroys. Uma, in the typical thribhanga or three bends pose is all woman, from her ‘mound of venus spread like the hood of a cobra’ to her breasts which the child Saint Sambandar describes below.

Fresh as newborn lotus buds
Lustrous as kongu buds
Honeyed like coconuts
Golden kalashas filled with the nectar of the gods
Are the breasts of the resplendent Uma

The exhibition can be accompanied by an audio guide. Though each room has cards for visitors to read from, explaining the significance of various aspects of the sculptures, the audio guide allows one to keep his/her eyes free for the beauty of the murtis. As the words wash over you there is nothing to distract from what is a visual treat. A mixture of poetry, music, history and mythology, the audio guide is narrated by a number of voices. Though most pronunciations were accurate, some were not – Skanda came out as Kanda in a number of places.

The second room was devoted to Saivite Saints and Durga imagery. Amidst depictions of the Saint Sambandar as a child and Bhadrakali stands a twelfth century statue of Karaikkal Ammaiyar. The story of ‘Mother of Karaikkal’ tells us that she was a beautiful devotee of the Lord, but asked that he relieve her of the burden of flesh so she could watch him dance unfettered by physical shackles. With her bald head, sagging breasts, sharp teeth and bony hunched back, by traditional standards Karaikkal Amaiyyar is not the most beautiful of pieces, but her story and the beatific smile of satisfaction on her face captures the heart and makes her one of the most memorable.

The last room is dedicated to Vishnu imagery. After Shiva’s wild abandon and the adoring Saivite Saints, Vishnu stands proud, tall and regal. The main attraction of this room was a towering depiction of Krishna with his two consorts and Garuda. But my favourite was a slender, playful looking Hanuman – so unlike the serious, muscled depictions of this son of Anjana and a depiction of Kalingamardhana. What is interesting about the latter is that unlike most paintings and pictures I have seen where the serpent King is depicted as a many headed snake, here he is half human half snake and his hands are folded in gratitude.

As I walked out of the hall past Lord Nataraja the words of Appar’s hymn rung true.

If one may see his arched eyebrows
The gentle smile upon his lips
Of kovai red
His matted locks of reddish hue
The milk white ash upon his coral form
If one may but see
The beauty of his lifted foot
Of golden glow
The indeed one would wish
For human birth upon this earth

Chola: Sacred Bronzes of Southern India till 25 February 2007 at The Royal Academy of Arts. For more information please go to

(Image courtesy Royal Academy of Arts)

(This appeared here)


Szerelem said...

Oooooh isnt it an absolutely marvelous exhibition?
I spent a couple of hours at the exhibition when I was in London and was utterly moved by the beauty of the statues. I miss London :(

Nilu said...

I am sure this exhibition was lovely.

But if you want the finest collection of Bronze Natarajas and track the minutest of His progression in bronze from the 8th Century to the 20th, please visit the Govt Arts Museum, Egmore. It has a statue from every Century since the 8th. Mind blowing.

yeggi said...

Pl read

The Dance of Siva (1918), Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers
Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy (आनन्द कुमारस्वामी) (22 August 1877–9 September 1947) was a pioneering historian and philosopher of Indian art, and early interpreter of Indian culture to the West.

Vi said...

The MOMA is fantastic; the Philadelphia Museum of Arts also has some good exhibitions (pertaining to India) as does the Met.

MW said...

We're going this weekend!

(Better late than never - plans have been afoot since November! :(