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The art of stealing hearts

A Chola bronze of Parvati. Photo: Wiki Commons  

Temple bronzes from the Chola era have immortalised, in their sensuous shapes, the history of a people and the fertile land around the Cauvery that sustained them between the 9th and 13th centuries. Columbia University art historian Vidya Dehejia is taking overflowing audiences at the National Gallery of Art in Washington for a journey through an age when people shaped gods in their own image.

Over six spring Sundays (inaugurated on April 3), Dehejia is delivering the A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, named after the founder of the National Gallery, which was established 75 years ago and is now an iconic American institution.

The Mellon Lectures, now a prominent event on Washington’s cultural calendar, will focus on Indian art for the first time since they started 65 years ago. Gods and humans from a millennium ago will come alive through Dehejia’s illustrated lectures before an elite gathering of art connoisseurs. “This set of lectures will indeed acknowledge and delight in the sensuous beauty of the Chola bronzes, but we will move beyond the sensuous, to ask questions that have never been asked before,” Dehejia said at the opening lecture.

The title of the lecture series, ‘The Thief Who Stole My Heart’, is inspired by a line from the 7th century child saint Sambandar’s description of Shiva. The lecture dwells not merely on the ascetic and cosmic aspects but the emphasis, as the subtitle suggests, is on the material life of the period as well.

It traces the prosperity and the economy that supported such a massive spending on bronze images. Not only were they numerous but they were solid bronze, whereas contemporary pieces from other parts of the world were sculpted hollow. The lectures look also at the role and status of the women, both royal and commoner, who commissioned the bronzes and oversaw the temple events that showcased these pieces of fine artisanship.

The lost-wax technique, which makes each Chola bronze a unique piece of poetry, used the fine clay of the Cauvery basin. But where did the copper that was needed in large quantities come from? Tamil Nadu does not have copper deposits. Dehejia seeks to explore that question and she is possibly moving closer to finding an answer.

She has gathered granules from a few bronze pieces kept in American museums. They will be analysed later this year for a chemical signature that marks out copper from Seruwila mines in Sri Lanka. If the Sri Lankan origin of the Chola bronzes were to be established, that would provide the most authentic explanation for what Dehejia calls the “Chola obsession with Sri Lanka”.

“There could be many reasons for this obsession with Sri Lanka. Copper may be one. They were also very interested in the pearl fisheries in the Gulf of Mannar. That was a reason they always wanted to control Sri Lanka. They needed a huge amount of pearls to decorate these bronze images, to be sent as tributes to China with whom they sought direct trade links. They were interested in trade, not territory. And Sri Lanka was central to this trade,” Dehejia says.

She argues that the prosperity of the Cholas came from rice, which was plenty, thanks to the irrigation system they designed. “Today, rice is cultivated on a million acres in this area. We have estimated that in those days, it was around 70,000 acres. It was their ingenious irrigation system that made this possible.” The Cholas used the climate system and the topography of the region to design an irrigation system that is still in use and that overcomes the shortfalls of the Cauvery.

The lecture series will turn into a book later, to be published by Princeton University Press. Some other legendary books on art born from the Mellon Lectures include E.H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, Kenneth Clark’s The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, and Oleg Grabar’s The Mediation of Ornament. Of the 65 Mellon Lectures so far, 60 have been on Western traditions. Two were on China; one was on Mayan art, and now we have one on India’s Chola bronzes.

Dehejia has memories of the agraharam near Tiruchi where her ancestors lived and she visited as a child from Mumbai, her birthplace. The nameless sculptors and timeless bronzes continue to lure her to that land. Dehejia spent around seven months in Thanjavur, Kumbakonam and Tiruvarur, preparing for the lecture.

Priests of village temples that have lost their ancient bronzes to safekeeping by the government complained that the festivals were no longer the same. “For big festivals, say a Brahmotsava, people go to a big town. The intensity associated with small temples has lessened since the bronzes are not there. The cultural lives — centred on these temples — the festivals, dance, theatre and music — are fading out,” she said.

Cast in Bronze, Written in Stone is the tentative title of her book. But she may well go with The Thief Who Stole My Heart.

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Printable version | Apr 9, 2021 5:50:24 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/chola-bronzes-will-be-the-subject-of-the-prestigious-mellon-lectures-in-the-us/article8479137.ece

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