Tradition in bronze

Published : Apr 11, 2008 00:00 IST

Siva and Parvati, c. 9th century, Government Museum, Chennai. The Indian artist relives the eternal truths each time he creates deities. The themes are eternal.-

Siva and Parvati, c. 9th century, Government Museum, Chennai. The Indian artist relives the eternal truths each time he creates deities. The themes are eternal.-

By about the 8th century, in the temples of Tamil Nadu, utsava murtis began to be made in bronze.

IN the medieval period, in Brahmanical worship, a great relationship of adoration and love was developed between devotees and the deities they worshipped. Men and women looked upon these personifications of the qualities within them to be moved by their grace and beauty and to awaken the best in themselves.

The human form of the deities made it easy for the devotees to relate to them. Divine families were created so that people could also engage with the deities through the emotions of their everyday lives. The purpose was always to lose oneself, to leave behind the concerns of the material world, in the ecstasy of adoration. This moment of transport was considered to be a glimpse of true knowledge itself.

According to ancient texts, the deity in the sanctum of the temple is depicted closest to his/her all-pervasive nature. It is a manifestation of the ultimate Truth. In the medieval period, there also developed a great tradition of utsava murtis, or festival images. The deity, in many manifestations of the human form, comes out onto the streets. Sometimes the deity performs a journey to a place of pilgrimage or may be taken for a ritual bath or even to the seashore to enjoy the breeze.

As presented in the ritual texts, there are two kinds of utsavas: those that take place as a regular part of worship, in which the deity may make a circumambulatory tour of the temple, and those that occur once a week, month or year. The most important are the grand celebrations called maha-utsavas, which are annual celebrations.

In all these utsavas, the deity leaves the sanctum and becomes approachable to all. The abstract, all-encompassing reality is given a form that one can relate to, a human form with emotions one can understand. It is the human form luminous with the beauty of divinity.

By about the 8th century, in the temples of Tamil Nadu, the utsava murtis began to be made in bronze. This tradition of bronzes, which reached its height during the Chola rule, resulted in some of the finest works of Indian art.

The art historian Sharada Srinivasan writes: A very different tradition of modelling was followed here in India and particularly in these South Indian bronzes. Unlike the European tradition of using models, the images were all made using mnemonic techniques, whereby the craftsmen were meant to memorise dhyana shlokas which describe the attributes of various goddesses and gods and they used the taalamana canon of measurement to essentially visualise the image and then sculpt it out of their own imagination rather than using models.

In the skilled hands of devoted artists, the metal images communicated the majesty and dignity of the deities as well as the suppleness and dynamic movement of their bodily forms.

These are remarkably expressive and graceful. They convey the spiritual fervour of the artists who made them. These works of art are part of a divine architecture where the deity manifests in forms that awaken bliss and peace within the viewer. These fluid and subtle images were a means of expressing the beauty of the divine that is in all that one sees.

In medieval Tamil Nadu, Brahmanical worship was carried out in shrines within homes and in temples. From the time of the devotional saints, from the 6th and 7th centuries onwards, many such temples were built. During the Chola period, from the 9th century, there was an increasing emphasis on grand temple structures. Many brick temples were rebuilt, and starting with the early 11th century, the tallest and most impressive temples were made. These edifices were like great cosmic palaces inhabited by large numbers of deities.

The Saiva Agamas and the Vaishnava Samhitas, the sacred texts that guide the rituals in temples, prescribe the procession of pancha-murtis, or five images, in the great temple festivals. Tamil Nadu has over 40,000 temples, so one can see why the art of making bronzes flourished there.

Temples dedicated to Vishnu had many utsava murtis of his manifestations. He was represented with his consorts and as Krishna and Rama, his avataras in human form. The numerous processional images of Siva present him in many forms. One can see him as a family man in the Somaskandha icon, with his beautiful wife Uma and child Skanda. As Bhikshatana, one can see Siva as the enchanting mendicant. As Veenadhara, one can see Siva as the lord of music. As Tripurantaka, Siva destroys the citadels of three demons. Many bronzes have also been made of Sivas consort Parvati and their sons, Ganapati and Kartikeya.

The sacred texts also mention bhaktotsavas, the festivals of the devotees. These celebrate the 63 saints of the Saiva tradition and the 12 saints of Vishnu temples. On the day of the procession, the bronze image of the saint is taken in front of the deity and his compositions are recited before him. These are poetic compositions of love for the deity. They serve to transport one to a joyous realm of appreciation of the divine. The most magnificent image in the bronzes is Nataraja, Siva in his cosmic dance. In this dance, he creates and destroys the world. The richness of symbolic meaning in the Nataraja image makes it one of the greatest icons created by man.

The circle in which he dances is samsara, the cycle of life and death in this illusory world. In one hand he holds a drum, whose heartbeat sound represents the creation of the world. Complementing the moment of creation is the simultaneous destruction of the cosmos. In his other hand, he holds the fire with which he destroys the world, reminding one of the transient nature of all that is around one.

The lower right hand offers solace to the devotee, granting fearlessness with the abhaya mudra. The lower left hand points to the raised foot. This foot springs up from the back of Apasmara, the dwarf of ignorance, of forgetfulness of the Truth. Apasmara is crushed under Sivas right foot. Under the raised foot, the devotee is promised refuge from the turmoil and confusion of the world of illusion.

The dance is wild, as can be seen from the coils of Sivas hair, which fly in all directions. Yet, his expression is serene and his many limbs are in perfect balance. At the centre of all the dynamic movement is the stillness of peace.

This is a marvellous representation of serenity: as the stillness at the centre of the turning world, as the stillness beyond agitation. Shanta rasa, or the experience of peace, is the final aim in much of Indian art. However, it is to be treasured precisely because it is seen against the context of agitation and the constant flux of the illusory world. The viewer or the worshipper is not invited to look at a desiccated, abstract idea of serenity. It is actually a hard-won peace that is placed amidst the invitations as well as the constant noise and clamour of the material world.

The Chola artists imaged deities as graceful, languid beings. There is always a sense of repose. Minute details such as the gentle swelling of bellies bring these bronzes alive before one. It is not optical reality but the essence of living flesh that is captured in the art.

These bronzes are also a mark of great technical achievement in the arts, where metal was flawlessly moulded to give form to the intangible. The material never dominates the image, which moves the viewer through the perfection of its beauty. A balance is achieved in the dancing icons, as for instance, in the icon showing Sambandar balancing on one foot, his arm extended in a posture that is dynamic and graceful. Nuances such as a heel raised off the ground show an effortless naturalism that goes far beyond photographic reality.

The Kalyanasundaramurti is undoubtedly one of the finest expressions of world art, where individual emotions are translated to a universal plane. One can relate immediately to the shyness of Parvati as a bride. Her companion gently places a hand on her back to encourage her to move forward. As Siva clasps Parvatis hand as they are married, the onlooker can relate to the divine through emotions that are so much a part of his own life. One is reminded of the divinity of life in all its moments. Thus, life in the world is fully celebrated.

The technique used to make South Indian bronzes is called the lost-wax process. First, the image, complete in all its details, is carefully made out of hard beeswax. Then, the wax is covered with layers of clay. The clay-covered model is then heated so that all the wax melts and comes out. What is left is a cavity that exactly replicates the wax image. Next, the molten bronze is poured in through channels made in the original design. Once the cast has cooled down, the clay is broken away and the stems of the channel are filed off. During Chola times, the moulds were made so perfectly that no further details needed to be carved. These days, however, the fine details are cut after the casting process is over.

As the wax model is lost each time, each bronze is a unique work of art. The early images were made of copper as is recorded in Chola inscriptions. In later times, images made of pancha-loha, or five metals, became popular. The constituents, gold, silver, copper, lead and tin, represent the five basic elements of which the world is made.

While the bronzes were being made, Vedic hymns were chanted and sacred rites were performed at appropriate stages. There were elaborate rituals of establishment, similar to those for the main temple icon, whereby the divine presence was infused into the images. The utsava murtis would then reside in the sanctum or close to it. They would receive daily worship and, at the time of the festivals, would truly come into their own.

Besides daily and weekly festivals, there are annual festivals, most of which last for 11 to 15 days. They are grand and colourful occasions in which the deities are carried through city streets on palanquins and in vast chariots, or rathas. The chariots have tall superstructures that resemble temple towers. Such festivals continue to this day as expressions of religious fervour and personalised devotion to deities. Tamil saints of the 6th to the 9th centuries brought a very special quality of bhakti to religious practice in Tamil Nadu. Bhakti is a whole-hearted devotion in which the worshipper becomes so immersed in the adoration of god that he loses sense of his separate self. It is a joyous path to the ultimate unity with the divine, out of love and its rapture.

Bhakti is the ultimate and most personalised expression of love for the deity. The poems of the saints left a deep impress upon Tamil culture, which continues to this day. The Saiva saint Appar sings of Siva:

If only you could see the arch of his brow

the budding smile on lips red as the kovvai fruit

the sweet golden foot, raised in dance.

The essence of the utsava murtis is found in the poems of the Tamil saints. This is Siva who has come out of his all-pervasive form in the inner sanctum to be among his people. On the streets, he offers darshan, a view of himself. In Indic traditions, it is believed that the act of looking upon the divine is an act of receiving grace. The divine is present everywhere, and in recognising that, one is blessed.

The deity is treated as an honoured guest and a beloved lord. He receives puja, or ritual adoration, every day and, in some temples, even up to eight times a day. Priests wash his feet, bathe and anoint him, rub sandalwood paste on him and dress and ornament him. He is entertained with song and dance, and hymns of the saints are sung before him.

Inscriptions speak of a dazzling array of jewellery that was gifted to the deities. These were given by a wide range of persons, from royalty to merchants to musicians and dancers and palace maids. Inscriptions also inform us of 400 dancing girls who were brought to live in Thanjavur to dance before the deities.

In the passion and devotion of the Tamil saints, we see also the deeply personal quality of the worship of the deities. It is through these exquisite utsava murtis in human form that the divine is brought from abstraction to accessibility, and even intimacy. The utsava murtis in festivals provide a wonderful occasion when people may experience the joy of being overwhelmed with devotional feeling.

In the journey towards the knowledge and realisation of the formless Eternal, emotions were beautifully harnessed. These sublime deities helped take one away from material concerns for a moment: the spell of Mithya, or Maya, was broken at least for that time. The Indian philosophy of aesthetics holds that each time this transport occurs, it leaves one a little richer and more capable of experiencing it again. One is on a path towards awareness of that which is eternal within one.

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