The difference between art and expression is often about the degree than of kind. But what do we do when the degree of difference between similar looking sculptures is vast?

In the Chennai government museum, one often wonders how to spot an exceptional bronze sculpture among the many that appear similar. All icons seem to look alike and have same features and anatomy. Would art history help or should one seek a good measure of craft to pick the better one? Both could be useful, but I often find it enriching to compare the narrative ability of sculptures - some accomplish it better than the other. Let me illustrate how I spotted a gem.

In the ground floor of the bronze gallery is the seated 43 cm high Vishapaharana discovered from a treasure trove in Kilappudanur, in 1919. This seated form of Siva has one of the legs folded, and the other rested on a small pedestal attached to the base. There is a parasu or axe in the rear right arm and the deer in the left. In the additional two front arms are a snake with a raised hood and a small pot (some art historians think it resembles a flower, which represents poison). This sculpture, datable to 9th century, is one of the best in the collection.

The story behind the sculpture has to be told to explain the iconography and point out why this Madras Museum Siva is a notch better than the others.

Devas and asuras, the celestial arch-enemies, came together in search of the nectar, which would make them immortals. Following divine advice, they churned the cosmic ocean using a giant snake as the rope and a mountain as the stick to extract the nectar. What emerged first was Kalakuta or Halahala, the deadly poison. The venom was intense; the heat unbearable and death appeared imminent. At that crucial moment, Siva intervened, swallowed the poison and perpetually held it in his neck. He saved everyone and himself and acquired the epithet – Vishapaharana, the destroyer of poison.

The gods are defined by what they do more than by what they are. They protect the devotees in different unique ways, and sculptures narrate this relationship.

Narrative, as sociologists define, is a relation between from and content. If the content of the sculpture is the story of protection, the form communicates it . To achieve this, South Indian bronzes do not rely on a large number of devices. The story is neither in the face. In fact, it is difficult to distinguish Siva from Vishnu or for that matter other gods by their facial features. The objects the gods carry, how they carry them, the animals that accompany, the dresses worn and other markings are critical.

There is plenty of drama in the Madras Vishapaharana sculpture. Axe and deer in the raised arms, which are generic to all forms of Siva, communicate his powers and willingness to protect. The snake and the pot in the front arms are crucial to the story. The onlookers’ attention is drawn to the snake by deliberately turning it away from him or her. It slithers, squirms, raises the hood and faces Siva. Like the onlooker, who could be a devotee or an aesthete, the snake appears equally anxious and witnesses the unfolding event. Siva’s face does not carry his benign smile. It is rather serious. Immersed and witnessing his own act, Vishapaharana reflects on the danger and profoundness of the moment.

To appreciate this narration better, one has to compare the Madras Vishapaharana with the one in the British Museum datable to 10th century C.E.

Here is the link to the image. Both the sculptures look alike. There are some stylistic variances, but the key difference is how they narrate the story.

The British Museum Vishapaharana is a normative rendering of the story. Siva carries the snake as he would carry any other weapon – as an upright object facing the onlooker. The highlighting feature is lost in the convention of form making. The right arm is in abhaya mudra (offering protection), which is another generic element. What is missing is the drama. Small details such as the deer facing Siva, common to both the sculptures, acquire a different dimension in the Madras piece. It enriches the narration – just as the snake, this animal too appears anxious. Even those who do not know the story would pause in front of the Madras piece. The placement of the snake and the serious face instantly communicate the unfolding of a dramatic event. The craft skills, as visible in the jewellery, dresses, hair locks in the rear side adds to the delight of the eye, but it is the narration that is riveting.

Another sculpture to look at is the Vishapaharana in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City. This standing bronze acquired from Deccan region is only half evocative.

Citing Bendetto Corce, the Italian philosopher, Colin Lyas would say that difference between art and expression is often about the degree than of kind (bit.ly/164Sl8q). But what do we do when the degree of difference between similar looking sculptures is vast? We cannot help but acknowledge that some are a class apart like the Madras Vishapaharana - a gem among stones.