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Chola Bronzes - A Study in Perfection

The bronzes of India defy age, looking as fresh today as they would have, just out of the sculptor’s mould, many centuries ago!

Indian bronzes speak volumes on the expertise of an art form that was born very long ago and still holds the strings of continuity in the story of Indian tradition.

The antiquity of the art can be traced back to the epic called the Matsya Purana. Later, amongst the findings in the ruins of Mohenjodara, came the discovery of the figure of the dancing girl-further reinstating the fact that sculpture along with the use of metal alloys was well known to people even then. Of course, all along one was also equipped with an ancient detailed treatise on iconography- the Shilpashastra. Yet all this adds to the exciting mystique of traditions when one finds there is no definite answer to the question of when or at what point of time the experimentations into this form of artistic expression actually began. Shilpashastra tells this small story that has come to capture the quintessence of this art.

There once lived a king called Vajra. He was a pious and devout man. One day he found himself standing at the feet of sage Markandeya with a request. Oh! Great sir, grant me but one wish begged the king. Teach me the art of iconography so that I may make my own idol for worship, using devotion as yet another input. Though the sage appreciated King Vajra’s sentiment, he was forced to ask him a few questions before handing him the first lump of metal. Do you know how to paint? Asked the sage of the king. The king did not know painting, but requested that he be taught the art if it was a prerequisite to learning sculpture. But for that you need to know how to dance, instead the sage. To learn dancing, in turn the king was required to have a rudimentary knowledge of instrumental music which needed a foundation in vocal music. So the king had to begin with the octaves to be able to pour his sensibilities into any other material and make a form! It is no surprise, therefore, that the beauty of Indian bronze lies in their efficient capturing of all these artistic forms within the figure created. So close is the association that the different disciplines also share certain common terminologies like the word tala. To a sculptor tala means one measure. To a musician or a dancer it refers to one beat.

This unified aspect of culture is more than evident when one sees the fluidity of movement in these static figures. With Shiva (one of the Hindu Trinity) symbolizing the cosmic forces of nature, dancer becomes the epitome of life’s rhythmic motion. The sthapathi or craftsman seeks to capture this motion in bronze. The contours of the legs, the arms and the whole body of a standing figure have so much semblance to reality that one can perceive not only the previous stance but also the following one: a fractional movement captured from the fluidity of one pose to another seemingly with a lens of an exposure of 1/500th of a second!

The evolved technique and the material used in no small measure contributed to the magnificence of the end product in these bronze figurines. The conventions, rituals and instructions of measurements etc. are the same old traditional ones which have come down through the ages.

While bronze iconography is age-old, it was only around the 10th century AD that there was large scale revival in the practice of this art form. Subsequently, within a few centuries, it reached its zenith. At this time, there was a strong religious fervor in the southern Indian states following the waning of the influences of Buddhism and Jainism. The Chola reign saw many temples being constructed. The presiding deity was constructed in granite. But there was a need for more idols which could be carried around the village or town on festive occasions. These figures were called utsavamuthis. Granite was too heavy for this purpose and so came the alloy of five metals symbolizing the five elements. The metals are copper, brass, and lead with a little bit of gold and silver. So effectively was this combination of metals chosen that they even reflected the figure’s vitality. The process of making these idols is known as cire perdue or madhu chistam.

Generally, deities are made from bronze. The favourate ones being Lord Shiva; Ganesh, the elephant faced god; Lord Rama; the incarnation of Vishnu and Parvati, Lord Shiva’s consort. These are, of course the more popular ones. However, there are innumerable variations upon the same theme which capture every myth that is associated with the deities. After the Cholas, the degree of finesse seemed to fade away and was never carried into subsequent generations but newer styles evolved, almost as beautiful. The tradition remained unbroken and just as cherished. It is this aspect that provokes immense wonder: wonder at the fascinating degree of perfection which is associated with the universal definition of beauty.

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