The sculptor who left his name behind…

The annals of Indian history are filled with not just dates of battles fought and won, but also with lists of monuments built by kings and their generals. These could now be ‘World Heritage Sites' or just a dusty temple in a nondescript town. Scan through the inscriptions, and somewhere deep down you'll read the name of the humble sculptor who breathed life into the stones. Sadly, most of them are either forgotten or simply unknown.

The Chalukyan and Hoysala sculptors were, however, exceptions. They signed on the rocks they carved, and even today, they are known by the signature they've left behind. One such is sculptor Mallitamma who lived in the 13th Century.

There is very little known about the prolific artist, but signatures speak for themselves. Curiosity got the better of me as I started reading about him, and visited temples he had built.

Driving around the Hoysala country, I came to Nugehalli, a small town near Hassan. It was initially an agrahara, established by Bommanna Dandanayaka, the general of Vira Someshwara, and the town was called Veera Someshwara.

Temple art

Home to the 13th Century Lakshmi Narayana and Sadashiva Temples, Nuggehalli introduced me to Mallitamma, who has more than half-a-dozen temples to his credit — including the Amriteshwara Temple in Amritapura and the famous Kesava Temple in Somnathpur.

I learnt from the priest that the sculptor had lived in the agrahara, and had overseen the construction of the temple. His work is seen on the northern and western niches of the temple, and his signature, on the idols of Vishnu and Indra.

Mallitamma, like many other artists of those times, moved from villages to towns looking for work. His initials ‘Ma' or ‘Malli' (as he sometimes signs) can be seen on several towers and walls of temples.

Vaishnavite iconography

I visited Haronahalli, Govindanahalli, Javagal and Koravangala, mostly towns around Hassan where Mallitamma's penchant for Lakshmi Narasimha Temples is evident. In fact, he almost became synonymous with Vaishnavite iconography.

However, Mallitamma's greatest work, and, perhaps, his swan song is the Kesava Temple at Somnathpur. Built by Somnatha, a general in the army of Narasimha III, the temple is considered one of the best of Hoysala architecture, along with the monuments in Belur and Halebeed. As Professor Settar mentions in his book on the Hoysalas, Mallitamma's signature is visible in over 40 sculptures in this temple and another 20 on the northern tower.

As I looked at his creation, I realised that Mallitamma's greatness would have probably been lost to the world but for his initials on the carvings.