History & Culture

The dancer frozen in bronze

Chola era Nataraja statue, National Museum, New Delhi  

Leg upraised as he performs the cosmic dance, damaru in one hand and fire in the other, the demon of ignorance lying crushed under his foot… the image of Nataraja fascinates everyone who sees the perfectly balanced and proportioned form. In the magical hands of the craftsmen of the Pallava and Chola eras, bronze took the form of poetry, as molten metal was frozen to capture beauty and grace in motion. This image has attracted scholars, writers and artists from across the world.

“Leonardo [da Vinci] in the 15th-century Italian Renaissance drew together art and science in the two-dimensional Vitruvian Man within a circle. In a preceding era, the casters of the Nataraja bronze had drawn together art, science and dance in an even more daring, dynamic, three-dimensional vision,” says Sharada Srinivasan, archaeologist and archaeometallurgist, who is a professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.

For her work of over three decades, Sharada was recently elected International Honorary Member to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, whose past members have included greats like Albert Einstein and T.S. Eliot. She has made valuable contributions to the study of archaeology and history of art by exploring engineering applications in these disciplines. She has also traced the history of metallurgy in India from prehistoric to modern times, including present-day craft practices.

Sharada Srinivasan inspecting a Kodumanal artefact

Sharada Srinivasan inspecting a Kodumanal artefact   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Archaeometallurgy — the study of metallic artefacts, ancient mining and metal extraction — is a sub-discipline of the archaeological sciences. As a B.Tech student of Engineering Physics at IIT Bombay, Sharada looked out for kindred spirits who combined scientific and artistic pursuits, such as Nobel Laureate C.V. Raman. “I became interested in spectrochemical analysis for characterising art objects. The archaeometallurgy and art historical study of South Indian and Chola bronzes seemed an ideal research topic for me,” she says. “This was undertaken through a British Chevening Ph.D Scholarship at the Institute of Archaeology, London. To me, the ethno-metallurgical studies of remote foundries were the most fulfilling — to experience first-hand the skill, immersion and resilience of crafts communities.”

As a Bharatanatyam dancer, the South Indian Nataraja bronzes have always been of great interest to Sharada. Her research in the area has led to exciting discoveries, she says. “So, while the dancer in me appreciated the metaphorical five elements of Siva’s dance, as a scientist I was intrigued by the prospect that the metallurgical analysis of the elemental composition of the Nataraja and South Indian bronzes might reveal insights into the history of technology, and related art historical trajectories. For representative South Indian bronzes of the early historic, Pallava, Chola, late Chola and Vijayanagara periods, I tried to identify characteristic metallurgical profiles — of both elemental composition and lead isotope ratios — which could then be used as additional criteria to distinguish between them in chronology and style”.

Sharada Srinivasan at a bell-making workshop

Sharada Srinivasan at a bell-making workshop   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Sharada’s work draws on a plethora of sources including literature, iconography, and Saivite hymns. “In two examples of bronzes that I technically identified as Pallava (800 CE) — one from the British Museum, and the other, the Kuniyur Nataraja in the Government Museum, Chennai — the mudras of the drum held slanted are strikingly similar. Neither has the flying matted locks found in the later 10th century Chola bronzes, such as the Nataraja stone and bronze images in the Aduthurai temple built by Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi. Taken together with seventh century CE devotional poetry such as that of Appar, who sang of the Kuttan or dancer with the raised golden foot, this suggests that the Nataraja bronzes were already prevalent under the Pallavas.”

As an archaeometallurgist, Sharada embarked on an arduous journey that took her on a study of not only South Indian bronzes made by the ancient lost-wax process, practised even today by artisans in the temple town of Swamimalai in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district, but also the Aranmula metal mirrors of Kerala and the bronze temple bells of Nachiyarkoil. Another in-depth study was on the manufacture of wootz steel, which the country was renowned for. “I have studied wafer-thin, high-tin bronze vessels (heat treated copper-tin alloys of 23% tin), from the South Indian Iron Age and megalithic sites of the Nilgiris, Adichanallur and Kodumanal, which rank amongst the most finely forged in the world. And I have identified similar rare continuing practices amongst the Kammalar of Palakkad in Kerala,” she says.

Archaeometallurgy is also useful in the detection of metal idols and artefacts spirited away from India. “South Indian metal icons are rarely inscribed, particularly Hindu images as compared to Jaina and Buddhist images, and so there are problems in dating and making stylistic attributions,” she points out. “This is complicated by similar artistic conventions being followed over centuries and into the present day at icon-making centres such as Swamimalai. We have the example of the smuggled Sripuranthan Nataraja, which was artificially patinated to change the look before it was sold to the Australian National Gallery and has now been restituted. Hence, having a database of the metallurgical profile and intrinsic fingerprints, such as lead isotope ratio data, can be useful for forensic purposes to tell apart antiques from recent examples.”

Sharada is currently working with the Tamil Nadu State Archaeology Department to look at finds from recent excavations to better establish the early trajectory of copper and ferrous metallurgy. She had earlier made some preliminary identification of ferrous crucible processes from Kodumanal, a megalithic site dating to 300 BCE, which testifies to the country’s millennia-old legacy in the field.

The author is a Chennai-based

writer and critic.

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2021 2:02:06 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-dancer-frozen-in-bronze/article35078401.ece

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