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November 23, 2006

Refreshing the jaded palates of post-9/11, spiritually thirsty gallery-goers: Chola: Sacred Bronzes of Southern India at the Royal Academy

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Chola: Sacred Bronzes of Southern India
Royal Academy, London
11th November 2006 - 25th February 2007
Daily 10am - 6pm (Fridays until 10pm)

The Lord Shiva carries a drum in one hand and fire in the other. The universe is set in motion by the regular rhythm of his dance. Bronze images of Hindu deities created for the festival cycles of Tamil temples can have a funny effect on the unbelieving. At first it wasn't clear to me why the drum should be a symbol of creation. Then I realized it replicates the beat of the heart.

The form in which Shiva is represented, the content of the message therein are so wedded, so organic in the Coleridgean sense, as laid out in his Biographia Letteraria, that the effect on the onlooker is one of approaching the sublime. The sacred bronzes from southern India showing at the Royal Academy occupy only three rooms but the divine intent of their poetry, the possibilities they present for peaceful contemplation, make these three rooms feel like a temple.

The first bronze to greet us is Shiva in his manifestation as Nataraja, "Lord of the Dance". He has a gentle smile and tilted head that suggest an elegant playfulness. His left foot, garlanded with bracelets, is raised in dance and his right foot is planted on a dwarfish figure representing the demon of darkness. His flowing matted locks or dreadlocks are an allusion to Ganga, goddess of the Ganges. In order to break the fall of her descent from Heaven to earth, Shiva agreed to catch her in his hair. A sacred hymn by the seventh-century saint Appar asserts that life is worth living simply to see,

the beauty of his lifted foot.
The dance of Shiva has deep cosmic significance; he dances the world into destruction and re-creates it again through the same dance. He is presented here in a circle of fire. His four arms are the insignia of omnipotence: he is the ultimate multi-tasker. It is interesting to see in these times of religious fanaticism the physical manifestations of a religion - Hinduism - that embrace the life-affirming and life-denying impulses that reside in every human breast, rather than projecting hostile impulses on to a perceived enemy. The Chola bronzes bring with them their own history which, in these Muslim-centric times, it is refreshing to learn about and celebrate.

In the middle of the ninth century Vijayalaya Chola, an obscure south Indian warrior, captured a small town in Tamil Nadu. In so doing, he founded a dynasty that was to become India's premier force for 400 years. By the 11th century, under Rajaraja I ("king of kings") and Rajendra I ("god Indra among kings"), the Chola dynasty controlled most of south Inda, had converted Sri Lanka into a tax-paying province, and exchanged embassies with China. Under Chola patronage, architecture, bronze sculpture and literature written in the Tamil language reached great heights. Music and dance flourished, too.

It is the expertise in bronze-casting that has had the most lasting impact. Chola bronzes are sacred images that were seen as exact embodiments of the god, and were therefore acknowledged as divine. The artistry involved is certainly divine. The exquisite sense of movement is something Rodin mused on, and that he translated into his own work - more roughly than these smoothly perfect beings. Purity of form were essential to convey the potency of these sacred images. For festivals, the bronzes would be washed in milk and honey paste, then garlanded with flowers and silks. As a result, over the centuries, they have lost some of their definition.

But, since eye contact with the statues is imperative, the eyes are re-cut on the orders of the temple authorities on a regular basis. This is a shame, aesthetically speaking, the patina and ensuing smoothness of the bronzes is so gentle that the sharply cut eyes are jarring. But, then again, they remind us of the statues' higher purpose.

Ganesha is another dazzling bronze. The second son of Shiva and Parvati, he has an elephant head, due to a fight with his father who was absent for his birth. When Shiva visited Parvati years after the infant's birth, he was perturbed to see a handsome young man in his lover's chambers. He cut off his head. Parvati demanded he reinstate it. The first head he found was that of an elephant. The delicate beauty of this bronze highlights the consummate artistry of these unsung artists.

Their humility in creating without credit is humbling to the western eye. The lack of egotism is extraordinary. The Hindu gods tell us strange, lavish tales of human life made fabulous. These bronzes, carried on bamboo poles, and designed to transport their beholders, will refresh the jaded palate of post-9/11, spiritually thirsty gallery-goers.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.


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Comments

Thank you for a good article. Good observation.
A minor correction "The Hindi gods" in the last paragraph. Hindi is the national language of India. It should be Hindu gods i perceive.
There are millions of Muslims, Jains, Buddhists and Christians who speak Hindi in India.
This is a common error made by many foreigners.

Posted by: Abhi at November 24, 2006 06:05 AM
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Corrected.

Posted by: Social Affairs Unit at November 24, 2006 10:53 AM
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