Heritage History & Culture

Decoding Chola Art

Dakshinamurti at Sri Kailasanathar Temple in Kancheepuram   | Photo Credit: A_Muralitharan

Tamil heritage Trust in association with Tamil Virtual Academy, organised lectures on Chola heritage. This second and final instalment brings excerpts from a few of them:

Through his illustrated lecture, P. Sivaramakrishnan, Professor, Government college of Fine Arts, showed how the Ramayana story has been represented in Chola miniatures. These are relief sculptures, executed on panels, about half the size of an A4 sheet of paper. He picked some Ramayana panels in the Pullamangai and Nageswaran temple, to show how the story unfolds through these miniatures. The miniatures are admirable in terms of dramatic representation, body language and architectonic construction. And in addition to all these, they also have minute decorations. The first Ramayana panel that Sivaramakrishnan explained was from Nageswaran temple, showing the Putrakameshti yaga being performed. The panel shows the bhuta emerging from the sacrificial fire, with a pot of porridge on its head. All eyes are on the pot. An air of suspense is created, everyone is anxious to know what the pot contains. The bhuta is looking at Dasaratha, for it is going to hand over the pot to him. Sage Rishyasringa is depicted sitting in just the way a deer sits, and that is difficult to sculpt.

For any painting or panel of sculptures, there is a centre point for the physical surface, and there is also a thematic centre point. Sivaramakrishnan explained how the two converge in the Chola miniature panels. The centre point of the Putrakameshti panel is the pot in the hands of the bhuta and this is also the thematic focus. The curved appearance of the bhuta captures the rhythmic activity of the flame. Two men in this miniature are not looking at the pot, but at each other. They are Vasishta, who initiated the yaga and another sage. Sivaramakrishnan drew a comparison with the feeling of a bride’s parents, when their daughter’s wedding festivities end. The parents look at each other and smile in relief and joy — relief that the wedding went off well, and joy that their child is now married. Vasishta’s emotions at the end of the yaga must have been akin to this, for the yaga has yielded the desired result.

In another panel, where Kausalya feeds baby Rama, she is reclining on a cot, holding the baby, so that it does not fall off. The foreshortening of her limbs to fit into the panel space shows that the sculptors must have been masters in the art of drawing.

There are panels showing Viswamitra giving Rama some additional training in wielding the bow, and then follows the killing of Tataka. Tataka is described as a huge ogre, who sports a string of elephants as her girdle. So, to show her size vis-a-vis Rama, the sculptor allocates to her half the panel. Rama, Lakshmana and Viswamitra are in the remaining space. So, Tataka is about one and a half times the size of Rama. If you were to segment the panel into Tataka’s space and Rama’s space, you find the tip of her spear intruding into Rama’s space. So Tataka is clearly ready to attack Rama. In the next panel, you find Tataka fallen. Viswamitra’s left hand points to the fallen Tataka. He is approving Rama’s killing of Tataka. His hand is the centre point of the panel, and also the one gesture that explains the entire panel for us.

Pallava style

Paintings of the Chola period were analysed by Viswanathan, lecturer, Chennai National Arts and Science College, who observed that Chola artists had imbibed the Pallava style. The santaram passage in the Big Temple has Chola period paintings. These were painted over during the Nayak rule. The original paintings were discovered in 1931, by S.K. Govindaswami of Annamalai University, and the Nayak paintings were removed to reveal the Chola masterpieces.

One of the Chola paintings shows a short, stout figure under a banyan tree. This has been identified as sage Agastya and as Dakshinamurthi. Viswanathan veers towards the Dakshinamurthi interpretation, because of the Datura flowers on the sage’s head, the presence of a bag containing sacred ash suspended from a branch of the tree and peacock feathers. To help appreciate the beauty of this painting, Viswanathan showed pictures of Dakshinamurthi sculptures in the Pallava period Kailasanatha temple, Kanchipuram, and in the Chola temple in Srinivasanallur. The Dakshinamurthi in the Kailasanatha temple has a lot of detailing, with representations of the Sanakadi sages and kinnaras, a snake with raised hood and a deer. While the Srinivasanallur sculpture of Dakshinamurthy is less crowded than the Pallava one, the Big Temple painting of Dakshinamurthy is rich in details. Siva’s small teeth can be seen. A snake emerges from a hollow in the banyan tree under which Siva is seated. A monkey has spotted the snake and scampers away in fear. Another monkey has not noticed the snake, and so it displays no fear. Owls are shown screaming. There is another snake slowly crawling up behind the first snake. Nature thus serves as a backdrop to Dakshinamurthy.

All the episodes in the life of Sundaramurthy Nayanar are shown in the Big Temple paintings. Preparations are on for Sundarar’s wedding. We even see food being prepared for the guests. The series ends with Sundarar’s ascent to Kailasa. The Tripurantaka painting shows Siva with weapons in his eight hands. The wives of the demons try to stop them from fighting Siva. In Siva’s army are Ganapathy, Muruga and Mahishasuramardhini on a lion. Viswanathan drew attention to the lion, for it is a symbol of victory and one finds the lion in the sculptural representation of Mahishasuramardhini in Mamallapuram and in Kurangaduturai. Siva’s knitted brows and fiery eyes show his anger, while in fact it his smile that destroys the enemy. All this is beautifully captured in the painting.

In order to raise an awareness about the need to preserve heritage, Viswanathan showed a two-minute video of water-blasting in the Nageswaram temple, which knocked off the head of Lakshmana in a sculpture and mutilated royal portrait sculptures. The Nageswaran temple, built by Aditya Chola, is older than the Big Temple by 100 years and because of water-blasting, we have lost many early Chola treasures. The noise of the machine is like that of a helicopter landing. Water-blasting has taken the place of sand-blasting. Although the process is given the benign label of ‘water-wash,’ it is as lethal to sculptures as sandblasting. As for paintings, there is no chance of their survival, in the face of such an assault. The Chola paintings in Thiruppulivanam were destroyed by sandblasting, Viswanathan concluded.

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Printable version | Nov 23, 2021 1:13:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/decoding-chola-art/article26014479.ece

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