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Lost And Found

Lost wax still enthralls, and is not likely to be lost for another millenium and more. Kumud Mohan recaptures the 8000-year-old fascinating story of Indian bronzes.

A slim sixteen-year-old with hair tied up in a stylish crescent-shaped braid behind her head. One arm covered with bangles from shoulder to wrist, placed elegantly on the thigh. The other thrown carelessly akimbo in a sharp, angular bow. One leg pushed forward gracefully in a dancing posture - portraying the epitome of perfection in the elements of art. So precious that she must be constantly shielded from the evil eye.

The model of the 4,600-year-old dancing girl from Mohenjodaro - one of the finest examples of ancient bronzes in the world - is permanently encased in bullet-proof glass at the National Museum, New Delhi. Her exquisite craftsmanship indicates centuries of trial and error that must have preceded to attain that level of perfection, but the story of the technological progress has been lost to the ravages of time.

Metallurgy on the Indian subcontinent is traced back to 6,000 BC at Mehrgarh on the Bolan Pass in Baluchistan. After that, there is no exact evidence of how the technology developed. Perhaps there were cross-cultural, cross-continental exchanges. Metal casting was known in all continents except South America and Australia as early as 3,000 BC.

In the Indian subcontinent, the tradition of casting metal images is believed to have started somewhere in the north-west, travelled through the heartland of the country, and finally reached south India some 2000 years ago. Well-formed metal images are believed to have been crafted from 3,000 BC onwards, and have been discovered at the Harappan civilisation sites of this period.

The images were secular, simple and natural to start with. Like those of the dancing girl, birds, animals, chariots or bullock carts in the Indus Valley Civilisation. Later, these images acquired religious connotations, inspiring Indian artists and craftsmen from different regions to attain unparalleled heights in the of portrayal of the Perfect Form.

Man, after all, was considered to be the nearest-to-perfect creation of God -- moulded in His very own image. God made man, but so did man make God. The images of God created by man were more beautiful, more graceful, more powerful, forever young, and radiating a divine benediction: love, peace, prosperity, protection and serenity.

The shilpkar or artisan - sculptor in this case - who developed an innate relationship with his work as he translated through his hands the inner image of God in his heart, learnt the lesson of detachment alongside. He made the offering of his labour of love and devotion to a temple without a single trace of his name on it, knowing fully well that like other people he too would be debarred from entering the sanctum later on. (An injunction of the "higher caste" priests to maintain their mystique over ordinary mortals).

The bronze images were often similar to the stone sculptures in which craftsmen had developed considerable skill from generation to generation. Metallic images, however, were lighter and could be worked upon all sides with greater ease, resulting greater finesse. Also, they were sturdier. Many of these images, described as chala murtis or movable icons (unlike the achala or static ones placed inside the sanctum sanctorum), were transported on chariots during festival processions. On these occasions they were beautifully adorned with clothes and jewelry, giving an opportunity to the old, infirm and the "lower caste" people to pay their homage to the deity. (Tiny rings to facilitate the insertion of rods for transportation can be spotted at the sides of the pedestals of some of the bronzes).

The iconic bronzes in India depict all the major ancient religions: ">Hinduism (Shaivism and Vaishnavism), ">Buddhism and ">Jainism. They received a special impetus during the Gupta-Vakataka period (4th-6th century AD) when ancient texts on iconography texts were codified and royal patronage for the arts reached its zenith. The Gupta idiom, characterised by simplicity, softness, sophistication and spirituality of expression, displayed a refinement of form delineated by soft contours and elegance of posture. These graceful qualities gradually degenerated with time, giving way to greater ornamentation, except later in south India.

Regional variations in iconographic presentation developed in different areas, depending upon the availability of raw material, contemporary inclinations, the skill, imagination and originality of the craftsmen, as also the theoretical formulations of local priests and the tastes of the patrons. The higher brass content in sculptures from Kashmir and Himachal imparted the bronzes with a yellowish tinge.

Cire perdue, or the lost wax process used to cast metal images in India, was described as Madhucchista Vidhana in Silpashastra, a treatise on craftsmanship. The images cast were both ghana (solid) or sushira (hollow).

The image was first styled with bees-wax mixed in the right proportions with castor oil, lamp soot, incense and camphor. Creating the image of a deity raised the social status of the shilpkar or craftsman. So, putting his soul into his effort, he sought to give lyrical expression to his inner music in every stroke.

The wax image was thoroughly coated with a solution consisting of fine clay from ant-hills mixed with paddy husk so that it entered every crevice. Next followed a thicker coat of clay with a conveniently camouflaged holes to allow molten wax to flow out later on. Before that, the mould had to dried naturally in the shade to avoid cracking.

The dried solid mass of clay was placed in a kiln and once the wax had flowed out, the hole was plugged. When the right temperature was reached, sufficient metal was poured in to completely replace the wax. The piece was shaken vigorously to prevent the formation of air bubbles. After that it was left aside to cool. Finally, the burnt earthen mould was broken to reveal an unfinished image -- ready to be cleaned, polished and finished meticulously with fine tools.

Since the mould had to be destroyed in every case, the process had to be repeated in all details for every single piece.Thus bronze images made by the lost was process were all unique.

Cire perdue, the thousands-of-years old metallurgical process devised to cast Indian bronzes, has not lost its relevance today. It has served as a model for modern processes and is in fact an essential part of both cottage and large scale industries -- including the automobile and aircraft industry.

Bronze is a generic term for non-iron metallic alloys that are sometimes enriched with gold or silver.

Amongst Indian bronzes, in the beginning mainly copper with tin was used for making artifacts and iconic images. Later on, the usage of five metals (copper, gold, silver, tin and zinc) came into vogue. The alloy, panchloha, symbolised panchbhutian, the five basic elements - earth, water, ether, air and fire - denoting the omnipresence of God and Nature.

In ancient western civilisatons, bronze - an alloy of copper with tin -- was of exceptional importance since it was used to make gun metal, armour, machinery and the massive bells associated with European history. Besides being harder than copper, bronze could be melted more easily and therefore cast into desired shapes.

Bronze was comparable in strength and durability with iron. Its historical replacement by iron for making tools, weapons and machinery was more because of the easy availability of iron, rather than any inherent advantage of iron over bronze.

The pleasant patina associated with ancient bronzes is actually a protective layer formed by the action of salts, moisture and particulate matter present in the atmosphere. Lacquering is not a desirable method for preserving precious bronzes as it cracks after a while leading to fungal infection and further erosion.

The best solution for preserving bronzes is to keep them in a dry, cool and clean atmosphere, and to avoid drastic changes in temperature and light.

SHIVA NATARAJ portrays the ultimate scientific philosophy in the body language of Indian iconic imagery.

The universe is believed to have been created by the vibrations of Shiva's kettle drum. His ceaseless cosmic dance of destruction and creation depicts the ceaseless motion within each element despite its apparent state of rest. ( Remember the constant motion of electrons within atoms?) The five-pronged flames emerging from Shiva's aureole (a circle, which has no beginning or end) signifies the five basic elements as also the five ceaseless functions of Shiva (creator, preserver, destroyer, liberator and eliminator of ingorance).

Quoting an ancient hymn, Mr. J.E. Dawson, Keeper (Archeology), National Museum, New Delhi, elaborates:

"O Lord, thy sacred drum has made and ordered the heavens and earth and other worlds of innumerable souls. Thy lifted hand protects both the conscious and unconscious order of thy creation. All these worlds are transformed by Thy hand, bearing fire. Thy sacred foot, planted on the ground, gives an abode to the tired soul struggling in the toils karma (causality). It is thy lifted foot that grants eternal bliss to those who approach Thee."

KALIYA MARDAN, a triumphant Lord Krishna holds the tail of a subjugated Kaliya -¤ the king of serpents - who was causing havoc in the river Yamuna flowing through Braja Bhoomi, Krishna's childhood playground. Krishna dances on Kaliya's hood held in anjali mudra (bowing reverently).

Mr. Sadashiv V. Gorakshkar (formerly President of Commonwealth Association Museums and Director, Prince of Wales Museum, Western India) conveys the environmental message behind the religious presentation:

"Remember, in that era of religious beliefs, scientific reasoning coated with myths and rituals was easily accepted and followed. Krishna, for instance, exhorted the people of Braja to worship the Govardhana mountain with its life-giving vegetation, rather than Indra, the lord of rain and thunder... Kaliya was polluting the Yamuna. By vanquishing Kaliya, an effort was made to cleanse the river waters.

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