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Updated: June 29, 2011 19:24 IST

Cast in bronze

K. JESHI
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A legacy of craftsmanship: S. Vijaykumar traces the history of bronze idols. Photo: M. Periasamy
The Hindu A legacy of craftsmanship: S. Vijaykumar traces the history of bronze idols. Photo: M. Periasamy

S. Vijaykumar traces the evolution of bronze idols from eight century to 13th Century

Sthapatis or metal workers in Swamimalai still nurture the centuries old tradition of bronze casting. They follow the ‘lost wax' method where the artisan models a figure in bee wax, covers it with a special clay mixture, and heats the clay model. The wax drains out and bronze is poured into the clay mould. The mould is then broken and the metal worker chisels out the fine details and produces the shiny finished sculpture. Each bronze idol that emerges from the cast is unique.

At a recent event organised by the Vanavarayar Foundation titled Cast for Eternity, art-lover S. Vijaykumar who documents stone sculptures, bronze images and paintings, especially of the Chola and the Pallava period on his blog www.poetryinstone.in spoke at length about the bronze castings of Sri Raja Raja Chola.

“Metal casting reached a pinnacle during the reign of Raja Raja Chola and Rajendra Chola,” says Vijaykumar. The subtlety of the metal allowed the artisans to bring alive a myriad of emotions in the sculptures. He gives the example of the ‘Kalyana Sundaram' bronze idols at the Tanjore Art Gallery with Shiva, the groom and his blushing bride Parvathi.

Painstaking detail

Some of the earliest Nataraja idols of the 8th or 9th century were much smaller in size. However, over a period it evolved in terms of artistic finesse. The sculptures were decorated with heavy ornamentation, Vijaykumar points to a simha in the belt buckle on the image on his screen.

When Nataraja dances, and he twirls around, his hair flies about his head. The movement and the energy of Nataraja is recreated in painstaking details which is amazing, he says. The idol of Lord Nataraja as ‘Dhaskinamerumitanker' at the big temple in Tanjore is proof of this. Similar canons were expressed in Greek sculptures too with focus on the body structure, curves and bends.

While in the earlier works Nataraja holds a ‘thee chatti' between his fingers in the later forms, the flame moves to his palm. This is evident in the famous ‘maarukaal thandavam” pose.

Many old temples have bronze idols of Somaskandar, Nataraja, Chandikeswarar, and Ganesha. They would often hold the favourite idols of kings too. For instance, Rajendra Chola's favourite was Bhairava.

Vijaykumar shows pictures of some of the oldest and the earliest known bronze idols that are housed in galleries in London, Delhi and Chennai. He has an interesting bit of information. He says a 10th century bronze idol of Vishnu at the London Museum has a Coimbatore connection. The citation reads that it is excavated here!

We also get to visit the breathtaking line up at the Tanjore Art Gallery.The earliest bronze idol of Somaskandar is at the Madurai Museum. Elsewhere, a bronze sculpture of Shiva as he contemplates swallowing poison (9th century) exemplifies intricate detailing. The Ardhanareeswarar at Madras Museum is an example of fine craftsmanship. “You find great attention to details in the clothes, the hair and ornaments.” Of the notable bronzes, Appar with uzhavaaram (the tool to deweed plants at the temple premises) and Manikavasagar with his divine verse are two.

Bronze idols saw a decline in the 12th century. “In some old temples the idols are still well maintained, however in many others, they are in a state of neglect. We want people to visit temples, look for bronze idols, photograph them and send them to us.” For Vijaykumar, documenting art and culture is a mission. He hopes it will introduce people to history.