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Splendour in metal

ZERIN ANKLESARIA looks at a significant addition to the literature on the exquisite temple bronzes produced during the Chola period, a time of unparalleled creativity in history.

"Yoga Narasimha, Vishnu in his man-lion avatar", Chola period, bronze, The Cleveland Museum of Art.

"THE Lord has two forms, the unmoving and the moving", according to a ritual text of the Chola period. "The unmoving form is everywhere, is like the sky, to be characterised only by negative epithets, unperceivable... and indivisible." In Shaiva temples, the symbol of this mystery beyond comprehension is usually a Shiva-linga of unadorned stone enshrined permanently in the inner sanctum, while its moving counterpart, taken out in festival processions, is an anthropomorphic figure presented in human situations. The austre linga, originally representing a shaft of light, has little appeal for ordinary people, but even the unlettered relate immediately to Shiva the sublime dancer, or Shiva the mendicant, or the endearing Shiva Somaskanda, the family man.

The Sensuous and the Sacred is also the title given to a catalogue of processional statuettes displayed at a prestigious exhibition which has moved from Washington to Dallas and which will be on view later in Cleveland. The 58 sculptures, as beautiful as they are technically skilled, date back largely to the 10th, 11th, and 12th Centuries, when the art of bronze casting was at its height.

Additionally, there are exhibits of 18th and 19th Century jewellery from Tamil Nadu similar to that depicted on the images, and a part of unique gold sandals so thickly encrusted with gems, even on the inner sole, that none but a god would dare to wear them. Mere mortals would seriously imperil their bones. There are also ritual lamps, and a charming gilded swing with push-rods to lull the deity into a kindly tolerance of human failings.

Vidya Dehejia recreates the milieu from which the bronzes originated, when temples were central to social activity. Apart from their religious significance they were vaunting symbols of power, and each ruler strove to build bigger and better than his predecessors. Abandoning mud and brick the Cholas erected huge, opulent stone temples, the greatest of which was the Thanjavur temple completed in 1010. This 216-feet skyscraper was the tallest in the India of its time. The king decreed that all the villages of his empire extending into Sri Lanka must give a proportion of their income for its maintenance, and himself gave lavishly to earn merit, bring prosperity to his kingdom, and elevate himself to semi-divine status.

A scholarly essay on the dating of figurines of doubtful provenance is followed by translations and interpretations of Tamil bhakti poetry appropritately titled "Joyous Encounters", for many of the poems are ironic, and playful or sensuous rather than reverential. In the liveliest of the four essays, Richard Davis describes festival processions in all their teeming life. Heralded by the clamour of drums and conch shells, with the leader on a caparisoned elephant holding a banner, the crowds press forward to view the dressed and bejewelled idols humanised, made less abstract and more approachable, by their clothing. This is a very different experience from seeing them unclothed, remote and idealised in their stillness, under the luminous lights of a modern museum.

The items in the exhibition are arranged thematically so that stylistic differences are immediately apparent as, for instance, between the Nataraja images. The two earlier ones are stocky and powerful while the later ones, slender and long-limbed, dance with supple, sinuous grace. The iconography differs too. An oval prabha with three-tipped flames encircles the older figurines, changing to round ones with five-tipped flames. In the bronze dated 1150 the prabha does not rise directly from the base but emerges out of the mouths of a pair of makaras, fanciful motif that subsequently became traditional.

A lesser-known aspect of Shiva is represented in a splendid seated image of Shrikantha, the Lord who saved the world by holding the poison in his throat. Gracious and regal, he holds a battle-axe, a deer and a serpent in three hands, raising the fourth in the gesture of protection. Equally impressive are the two bronzes of Tripuravijaya, Victor of the three Cities, which Shiva is said to have destroyed with a single arrow. The Thanjavur temple built by Rajaraja Chola to commemorate his victories has 18 such images, suggesting that the king saw this form of Shiva as a divine archetype reflected in himself.

Earlier Queen Sembiyan, a highly respected personality who widowed at 30 and spent her life in pious and artistic pursuits, felt a similar affinity for the Goddess Uma. The three images of the latter in the exhibition are all from the Sembiyan workshop, the most arresting of which is thought to be a "portrait" of the queen herself. Here is an unusually slender figure, long-necked and narrow in the hips, with exaggeratedly sloping shoulders. Grave and dignified, without a trace of hauteur, this Uma is among the finest sculptures on display.

"Uma as Tripuravijayi or Bhogeshvari, with attendant", Chola period, bronze, private collection.

A charming family group with little Skanda dancing on the seat between his parents and a benign, long-necked Nandi waiting obediently for his Lord are particularly eye-catching, as are the Shaiva saints, a lively and individualistic lot. The loveable child-saint Sambandar, who wrote 4,000 verses to Shiva and set them to music, is shown dancing as he invokes all nature, the dancing peacock, the flowers and bees and insects in joyous praise of the god "who quelled Death with his foot".

Ammaiyar's poetry is a stark contrast, its charnel-house imagery of corpses, skulls and grinning teeth coming appropriately from this dazzlingly beautiful woman whom Shiva, in answer to her prayers, changed into an emaciated ghoul so she would abjure all vanity and worship him without distraction. Sundarar, on the other hand, is impudent, and addresses the Lord with pert familiarity. A poem of conventional praise is rounded off on a note of defiance: "Say what you will,/we can rejoice when he gives us gifts/or curse when he doesn't but/can't we find some other god?" And here he is mocking at Shiva's mordinate love of snakes as adjornment. "In your hand one snake:/another snake tied to your waist;/a snake on your neck — /they are crawling all over your back... ."

Vishnu and the legendary figures related to his cult form a separate group. There is the dancing child Krishna of which the Sambandar statue is probably a copy, and Ram, Hanuman, and a beautiful 10th Century Sita. The tight curls that frame her face, the elaborate chignon into which flowers are interwoven, and her profusion of heavy jewellery are carefully detailed, while her skirt is patterned with scrolls and rosettes. The splendid image of Vishnu as a boar with Bhu Lakshmi on his lap came three centuries later. The ornate crowns, the discus and jewellery, the swirls and dots on the clothing, are incised with a sharpness and precision unusual in Chola statues.

A Buddha image and two of Mahavira testify to the open-mindedness of the Chola monarchs despite their piety. In fact Rajaraja's chief queen and his sister built Jain shrines and the King himself built a Buddhist chapel and endowed a village for its upkeep.

The wealth of material in this splendid book takes it far above the requirements of a catalogue, illuminating the ethos of a great age in which the pride of conquest was tempered by tolerance, a deep religiosity and a love of the aesthetic. One's pleasure in reading it is, however, diminished by the tiny print which calls for a magnifying glass. To decipher the notes something more is required. A microscope perhaps? O Mapin, O American Federation of Arts, have mercy on our poor, aching eyes!

The Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola Bronzes from South India, Vidya Dehejia, with essays by Richard H. Davis, R. Nagaswamy, and Karen Pechilis Prentiss, American Federation of Arts, in association with Mapin Publishing, Rs. 2,500.

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