Issue Number: 92
As a show of exquisite Chola bronzes from southern India comes to the Royal Academy, sculptor Stephen Cox speaks to Simon Wilson about their spiritual and sensual meaning, how they were produced and how they have influenced his own work. Main portrait photograph by Anna Schori
Sculptor Stephen Cox in his studio Sculptor Stephen Cox in his studio Sculptor Stephen Cox in his studio.The British sculptor Stephen Cox has been fascinated by Indian art since he chose a book on Indian sculpture as an art prize at school. On a summer afternoon of almost Indian languor, I met the artist in the garden of the Chelsea Arts Club, where he offered a succession of unique insights into Chola bronze sculpture, the subject of this winter’s exhibition at the Royal Academy and an inspiration for his art.
While Europe was still struggling out of the Dark Ages, the Chola dynasty of southern India, which ruled from 850 to 1279, presided over an extraordinary artistic flowering. At the heart of this were the superb bronze sculptures of Hindu deities and saints produced for worship in the temples energetically built by the Chola. Of small to medium size, generally about a half to one metre high, these idols were also portable for use in processions and at festivals.
Extraordinary in craftsmanship and compelling in conception, Chola bronzes are especially notable for their emphasis on the physicality of the deities depicted. This reflects the approach to their worship known as bhakti. In her essay for the RA exhibition catalogue, the curator Vidya Dehejia describes bhakti as ‘an intense and passionate devotion to a personal god… a joyous worship.’ As she explains, ‘appreciation of a deity’s bodily beauty was one of India’s customary approaches to the divine.’ This sense of divine beauty explicitly reflects the mix of the sensual and the spiritual that is central to Chola art.
Cox, the subject of a retrospective in Bristol in September, discovered the Indian treasures in the British Museum and the V&A as a student. Then in 1985 he was invited by the British Council to represent Britain at the Indian Triennale in New Delhi. Unusually, instead of just sending work over, he decided to make his exhibition in India, and this led ultimately to his establishing a studio, which he still maintains, in the southern Indian town of Mahabalipuram, near Madras.
Chola bronzes have a particular place for him in Indian art: ‘In the National Museum in Delhi I came across so much magnificent Indian sculpture, but the early bronzes struck me with their extraordinary craft, skill, sensuality, as well as how early they were in the context of art as we know it in the West.’ A symptom of their impact is that Cox, above all a worker in stone, was moved to create a series of bronzes, working with a present-day temple idol maker in Mahabalipuram.
How has he, a carver, become so interested in these bronzes? The reply is surprising. ‘You talk about me as a carver, but the fascinating thing is that these bronzes depend on the practice of carving, so I can relate to them in that way.’
I was slightly baffled by this. Of course, chasing, using chisels to tidy up the cast and perhaps add detail, is a normal part of making a bronze, but carving? Cox’s explanation is fascinating: ‘Indian bronzes are solid and they’re solid because you can’t have a hollow god. With the solid casting there is so much shrinkage that any detail would disappear or be sucked in as the bronze cooled. I’ve made bronze works with temple bronze makers and the extraordinary thing is that the bronze is really only the final part of it. All the artistic creation is in the wax model, which is brought up to an extraordinary finesse in which all the elaboration, the decoration, eyes, nose, eyelashes, the jewellery, everything, is shown in the wax. But then when that is finished, they obliterate what they have done. Even the face and fine features are covered in wax, so it becomes like a solid mask. When the work has been cast, the artist then recovers the original form by carving into the bronze; all the fine detail is actually carved back in.’ This whole process by which the image of the god is created, obliterated, then recreated, is an astonishing aspect of Chola art.
One of the outstanding works in the exhibition is a bronze of the god Shiva, a key Hindu deity of particular importance in the Chola tradition, shown as Lord of the Dance (above), one of his many manifestations. Something of the way his worshippers might see him is conveyed by Vidya Dehejia’s enthusiastic comments: ‘Exquisite face, elegant torso, perfectly proportioned thighs and legs, gently curved yet tight buttocks… the epitome of physical beauty.’ I wonder whether Cox could give us his Western sculptor’s view.
Interestingly, he goes straight to the ideas behind it: ‘I think the concept of it is extraordinary as a manifestation of a theology. This aureole with flaming forms is diagrammatic of the way that Shiva is both a creator and a destroyer, and makes me think of the complexity of the Hindu cosmology.’
He explains that this very ancient cosmology embraced a concept that universes are born and then die, which is remarkably similar to modern big bang theory. Pointing to the drum in one of the four hands of the figure, he notes: ‘The beating of the drum brings the universe into creation. The flame in the hand on the other side represents the universe being destroyed. With the mudra [symbolic gesture] of another hand, he is bestowing peace. At the same time, this extraordinary, exquisite figure embodies the idea of victory over evil through the demon he is crushing underfoot. His other hand points to the foot raised in the rhythm of the dance, which is breaking out of the cosmic cycle into the human space that we inhabit. The whole image represents a vision of the cycle of life and of the cosmos, taking place in peace and with the defeat of evil.’
I want to return to the way that these images of the gods are actually experienced by worshippers in the temple. Cox makes it clear that it was very different from the way we see them in an art gallery or museum. The reason for this is the fundamental form of Hindu worship, the ceremony of puja. An essential part of puja is making offerings to the god as a means of showing reverence: ‘The god is bathed in the morning, then anointed, then dressed with clothes that are rich and adorned. At the famous temples in the town of Tirupati and nearby Tirumala, massive amounts of jewellery are given to the principal deity. Wealth beyond measure is thrown at an idol. But even a modest idol in a village would be treated as a protector, as a royal personage and given all due obeisance for their existence as a god.’
Towards the end of the afternoon the conversation turns back to Cox, specifically to what the relationship might be between Chola bronzes and their Hindu devotees’ response to them, and what Cox aspires to in his own sculpture. ‘One of the things that I’ve been following in my practice is the idea that art is a metaphor for religion. I believe there is an innate spirituality in great art. In modern Western culture there has been, with the decline in religious observance, a disconnection between our spiritual life and art – that is, we no longer experience art in a religious context. What one does have is a phenomenal number of people who go to art galleries and museums, who obviously visit because painting or sculpture speaks in a particular way.’
We then discuss Cox’s adoption, in some of his carved work, of the Hindu practice of anointing the god. Partly this is for formal reasons: ‘I was absolutely transfixed by the fact that you’ve got this grey form and you pour oil on it, and its path goes completely black and takes on the form of something I was trying to say in the shape.’
But the spiritual dimension is crucial, too. He describes as ‘spine tingling’ the moment last April, when the Archbishop of Canterbury anointed the altar Cox had just made for Canterbury Cathedral. And he tells an extraordinary story about an exhibition of his large carvings in a park in Delhi. Two of them were anointed with oil: ‘After Friday prayer at the main mosque in Delhi, 500 people in cars came to my exhibition and demanded that my sculptures be thrown down because they were oiled. They had suddenly become enlivened idols in the eyes of the Muslims in the area and it was incredibly threatening to them.’
My own experience of Cox’s sculpture is that it does indeed speak with numinous power. Of course, he has done this in different forms and contexts. But the work he makes in response to Chola bronzes seems special for the way in which he has forged a link between modern Western art and this ancient but still living religious tradition in India. His art is nevertheless resolutely non-sectarian and it reminds me that we live in a world which, surely, could do with a lot more spirituality and a little less religion.
Chola: Sacred Bronzes of Southern India, The Sackler Wing, Royal Academy of Arts (020 7300 8000), 11 Nov–25 Feb, Travel Partner Cox & Kings; Stephen Cox, Sculptor: Origins & Influences, Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery (0117 922 3571), 30 Sep–26 Nov