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Splendour in metal

`The Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola Bronzes from South India' is the first exhibition of its kind in the U.S. that centres upon examples gathered from public museums and private collections in America and Europe. S. RANGARAJAN on the on-going show at the Smithsonian, Washington.

A RARE and priceless collection of Chola period (from the Ninth to 13th Century A.D.) bronzes is on view at the Smithsonian Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C. (November 10, 2002 to March 9, 2003). Assembled from national and international museums and private collections across the United States and Europe, this exhibition ( of portable bronzes, numbering 70, and 38 pieces of jewellery (ornaments in gold and precious stones and temple garments to adorn deities. Though these pieces on view do not belong to the period, jewels of a similar nature were evident in the Chola and following periods) is organised in two thematic sections: the first focusing on bronzes devoted to a Shiva temple and the second on a group from a shrine to Vishnu.

The bronze images of Nataraja and the dancing Shiva, personify and radiate the glory of the Chola period art of South India. There is also a suite of four Natarajas. Though conceptually the images are broadly similar in nature, it is the minute differences in the detail, distinctively etched out in each of the bronzes that reveal the craftsmanship of each school of art and the region and period in which the works were made.

Circular Shiva and Parvati gold pendant with rubies and crystal, Tamil Nadu, 17th Century, collection Susan L. Beningson.

All the four bronzes are of impressive size and grandeur and they are noteworthy for the intact aureole or prabha.

In the 35 in. bronze Shiva as Nataraja, Lord of Dance (Chola period, CA 1110) from the Dallas Museum of Art and the 60 in. Nataraja from Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Shiva's matted lock is opened and spreads out like a flaming musical sheet touching the aureole from a side with cosmic proportions of the dance movements.

The 28 in. Nataraja, dated 990, from a private collection, portrays the Lord of Dance, poised and balanced within the prabha, the right foot firmly planted on a dwarf-like figure.

The 40 in. Nataraja bronze from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, presents Shiva well within the aureole and the flames around the prabha closer to each other than in the other three.

Auguste Rodin, the overwhelmed French sculptor, described the dance posture as the perfect embodiment of rhythmic movement.


Somaskanda, Shiva with Uma and Skanda, Chola period, ca. 1100, bronze, collection Doris Weiner, New York.

"Prior to the 13th Century, no Tamil Nadu inscription — whether of the Cholas, Pandyas or any other chieftains — contains the Sanskrit word Nataraja. Dancing Shiva was known in Chola territory as adavallan (master of dance), kuttadavallan (master who dances the dance), tillai ambalattu kuttan (dancer in the hall of Tillai), chittrambalatt kuttan (dancer of Chidambaram) and kuttu-perumal (Lord of dance)."

Vidya Dehejia,

Shiva — His Temples, His Images.

The 26 3/8 in. Chola period CA. 975, kongu.nadu bronze from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, gloriously adorns the section "Vishnu — His Temple, His Images." The standing image of Vishnu contrasts with the seated posture of the smaller sized (13 in.) Vishnu bronze of the Chola period, 925, kongu-nadu, from the British Museum.

The V&A's contribution to the exhibition continues with its 13th Century 17 7/8 in. bronze Bhu-Varaha, Vishnu's avatar as a gigantic boar, embracing Goddess Earth.

The powerful image of Yoga Narasimhan, belonging to the 13th Century, perhaps around 1250, comes from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

R. Nagaswamy in his Masterpieces of Early South Indian Bronzes (New Delhi, National Museum, compares the work to an image of a similar date now at the National Museum, New Delhi.

Saint Karaikkal Ammaiyar (Mother of Karaikkal), Chola period, 11th Century, bronze, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, U.S..

Can there be an exhibition of Chola bronzes without Ganesha? To bring auspiciousness to the presentation is the benign standing image of Ganesha (Chola period. C.A. 1070) from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Each bronze work speaks volumes to the cire-perdue (lost wax) multi-stage process in which molten metal was poured into a hand-fashioned clay model that was broken apart to yield the final work of art. It was a method unknown to the West at that time. The majority of the exhibition objects date from the 10th — 12th Centuries, the height of the Chola dynasty's power.

Yashoda nursing Baby Krishna, Chola period, 13th Century bronze, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The arraignment — has the dual purpose of reflecting the principal groupings found in Chola temples, and introducing the western visitor to the complexities of Hindu iconography and the divine personalities and religious myths. The exhibition evokes a sense of the rituals accorded to the statues and of the role the statues played, and still play in temple devotion and popular processions.

A collaboration between the Sackler Gallery and the American Federation of Arts, this exhibition has been organised by Ms. Vidya Dehejia, Professor of Indian Art at Columbia University (Barbara Stoler Miller Chair), and former chief curator and Deputy Director of the Sackler Gallery. It is the first in the United States to concentrate solely on the temple sculptures created during the four-century rule of the Chola emperors.

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