Issue Number: 93
Heaven sent: Michael Wood explores the art of the Chola dynasty
Renowned for their artistic and cultural achievements and inspired by their religious beliefs, the Chola dynasty of Southern India raised bronze casting to unsurpassed levels, says Michael Wood
Shiva in his incarnation as 'Tripuravajaya' (Victor of the Three Cities), c.950-60. Shiva in his incarnation as 'Tripuravajaya' (Victor of the Three Cities), c.950-60. Shiva in his incarnation as 'Tripuravajaya' (Victor of the Three Cities), c.950-60. Take the Cholan Express to Tanjore along the Kaveri river and you’ll see why Marco Polo thought South India the ‘most splendid country in the world’. Temple towers rear above the forest at every stop like exotic, petrified vegetation as the train rumbles over swirling monsoon-swelled rivers – some of the 40 streams that spread out in a filigree of water and chocolate-dark alluvium to form the rich rice fields of the delta.
This was the foundation of the wealth of the Chola Empire that dominated the region from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, and sent armies to Sri Lanka and the Ganges plain, despatching trade missions and planting colonies across the Indian Ocean to Java, Bali and the Malacca Straits, some of which are still there today.
Famed for their brilliant artistic and cultural achievements, the Chola are often compared to the ancient Athenians. Like the Greeks, their culture went back into the deep past – the earliest surviving Tamil Nadu literature is pre-Christian -– and in music, dance, poetry and sculpture, they were as inventive and expressive as any civilisation on the planet. And as idiosyncratic: this was an age that created love poetry of almost postmodern awareness, as in this stanza from a hymn to Shiva:
‘… on that day when you looked at me,
you enslaved me
in grace entered me
and out of love melted my mind.’
— Manikkavachakar, Tiruvachakam, Hymn 38
Yet the Chola also produced bloodthirsty battle eulogies in which gruesome punishments are meted out to defeated foes. A time of blood and flowers, then, evoking strange parallels: feudal Japan perhaps, or even the Aztecs.
Bronze casting was one of the arts that the Chola raised to unsurpassed levels. The bronzes were made for use as portable images for festival processions, but also as icons for worship in temples. For the devotees, they came to be a channel for bhakti , or as Tamils say, anbu – a word that translates as love or personal devotion to God. This great devotional movement began in early medieval South India, and its poetry is still performed by travelling singers, the oduvars.
So we should not see these bronzes just as works of art, but as images for worship and mnemonics of culture. Viewing them in a gallery as museum exhibits, it is hard to imagine them in context, amid the sights, sounds and smells of South India. But few experiences are more delightful than to be in a Tamil temple by the Kaveri river at sunset puja (ceremony of worship), with the sound of nadeswaram (wind instruments) and drums in the air, the scent of incense, jasmine and ghee, and the glow of bronze in the light of the flame – a dancing Shiva, or a voluptuous bare-breasted bhoga shakti (Shiva’s consort) – the goddess as all-powerful woman. South Indian worship is nothing if not sensuous.
Best of the Chola bronzes perhaps are the stunning pieces from the days of Rajaraja the Great, the builder of the Chola Empire, who reigned from around 985 to 1018. Of the 66 bronzes dedicated to his own great temple in Tanjore, only one has survived and is still under worship: a wonderful dancing Shiva. But Sembiyan Mahadevi, Rajaraja’s aunt and one of the greatest Chola patrons of the arts, left dozens of masterpieces in many places, including gorgeous works in Konerirajapuram, Vriddachalam and Tiruvalangadu. (What may be her portrait, incidentally, is to be seen today in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington.)
The finest, many would argue, come from the temple of Tiruvengadu deep in the delta, where over 30 ancient bronzes have survived the vagaries of time. Some are still in living worship; others recovered from hoards buried in time of war are now in the magnificent collection in the old Thanjavur Palace Museum in Tanjore. They are all swaying lines and lovely curves; wasp-waisted goddesses, androgynous male divinities with a hint of puppy fat above their jewelled waistbands. The bronzes depict ancient themes: god as the dancer, the yogi or beggar and the goddess as virgin, benign wife, or dark mother; themes still endlessly reinvented today in Indian cinema and television.
My own favourite is a four-feet-high masterpiece cast in 1011 that shows the god Shiva in his archaic role as Lord of the Animals. But, here, the wild boy of prehistory is a sinuous cowherd with a turban of snakes, legs nonchalantly crossed, left arm provocatively hanging by his hip; naked but for the skimpiest wrap around his thighs, which serves only to draw attention to his heavenly attributes . There had been nothing like it since the ancient Greeks, and – saving Donatello perhaps – there has been nothing like it since.
Who were the artists, the sthapathis, who produced these great sculptures? Scholars suspect they often worked in families, like the Tiruvengadu casters whose work is found over at least five decades. Several other distinctive groups have been identified in the Kaveri river delta; maybe others travelled widely to serve wealthy patrons. Their successors can still be found today. In the leafy jungle of the Kaveri less than 40 miles from Tanjore in the village of Swamimalai, several families of sthapathis live, hereditary bronze casters who still make temple idols. One of the oldest families, S. Devasenapathy and Sons, has a workshop near the Murugan temple behind an unprepossessing modern shopfront. Three brothers now run the business, and they have made images for temples in the US and the UK, as well as all over South Asia.
One of the brothers brings out a crumbling unbound volume from the 1961 Census of India, where a fold-out genealogy traces his ancestry back through seven generations of named craftsmen here in the village. Family tradition takes them much further back. The story handed down from their ancestors recounts that they originally came from Gingee, one hundred miles to the north, and that they moved to Tanjore a thousand years ago when Rajaraja gathered craftsmen for his Great Temple. Later, they migrated to Darasuram, where a sumptuously ornamented royal temple was built in the twelfth century. Finally, in the Middle Ages, they settled in Swamimalai, an old centre of bronze-making and bell-casting known for its fine-grained river clay.
One of the Devasenapathy brothers tells me of the process of making the bronzes. ‘We do things exactly as the Chola did a thousand years ago,’ he says. ‘This means we still use the lost-wax process’ . Behind the office and the finishing shop is a big, thatched workshop that opens on to gardens at the back. Cows wander around nonchalantly as the fire roars ready for the heating of the bronze. Here, under a rattan roof are the earth pits where they bury the hot moulds. As we talk, four barefoot workmen gingerly carry in a glowing fired clay mould on a wooden stretcher.
He tries to lift a massive, shapeless charred lump of clay out of which, rather like Michelangelo’s giants emerging from their prisons of stone, one can make out the legs and front arm of a dancing Shiva , the quintessential Tamil image of the Divine. It is this conception that Rodin thought the most perfect representation of rhythmic movement in all the world’s art (RA Magazine, Autumn 2006). As the French sculptor put it, ‘above all, there are things that other people do not see: unknown depths, the wellsprings of life. There is grace in elegance; above grace, there is modelling’.
Back in the office, Mr Devasenapathy shows me some finished images, gleaming disconcertingly like chrome on a new car: quite unlike the soft browns, blue-greens and lead greys shading to a kind of gunmetal black, all of which are found in the patinas of old works. Nearly twenty years earlier, I had met his father here and asked him who was the best of the Chola masters. ‘The standard was very high,’ he replied. ‘When you think, even today, there must be thousands of ancient bronzes surviving. But the best, I think, were the Tiruvengadu sthapathis. They were great artists who had a vision that added something to religion. They made the greatest masterpieces.’
What distinguishes bronzes made in the Chola period from later versions, and those made today, is their exquisite detail. The Chola sthapathis were able to cast the most delicate nuances, such as rings on toes, strands of hair and tightly clasped fingers from the original wax model, giving their bronzes a seamless, organic beauty. Today, despite following the same methods of lost-wax bronze casting perfected by the Chola, craftsmen are no longer able to cast such fine details, so they are carved into the bronzes at the finishing stage.
‘The best sculpture,’ he continues, ‘is the half-man, half-woman, Ardhanarisvara , now in the Chennai Government Museum. It is a unique image: impossible to copy. We have tried. But even if we could make an exact copy in every detail, it would be inferior. The point is not so much a technical one. Though their technical ability was top quality, it went beyond a matter of technique. They attained the spiritual essence of art.’
A great modern Tamil scholar described this as the last classical civilisation. It is certainly true that if you want to know what it is like to belong to a traditional civilisation, Tamil Nadu is the place to come, and the divine Chola bronzes, in their making and their meaning, in their living role in festival, poetry and worship, are a crystallisation of the Tamil view of the world and their place in it.
Chola: Sacred Bronzes of Southern India, The Sackler Wing, Royal Academy of Arts (020 7300 8000), until 25 Feb; Michael Wood’s talk South India: The Last Classical Civilisation, Reynolds Room, Royal Academy of Arts, 9 Feb, 6.30–7.30pm.
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