For decades, exquisitely casted bronzes from the Chola period (848 CE – 1279 CE) have enthralled art historians, sculptors and devotees alike. For over four centuries, dozens of fine bronze images were crafted across workshops in the Chola reign. The style and school of art that produced these pieces is particularly unique to the Kaveri delta region. Yet, despite the ubiquity and a sense of historical continuity given that these works of art continue to be produced in the very way that the tradition began, very little is known about the origins of the art and the tradition that evolved around it.
Padma Bhushan awardee, the renowned art historian Vidya Dehejia had delivered a six-part lecture on the ‘material life’ of Chola bronzes at the National Gallery in Washington, DC as part of the AW Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts. She begins with an easy introduction as to why the bronzes began to be made and slowly dwells into the nature of the art, the artisans who made the images and those that had caused these images to be made.
“In the Tamil speaking region of South India we may speak without the slightest suggestion of disrespect, of artists and poets making the Gods in their own image” says Dehejia as she introduces the six-part lecture series titled the The Thief Who Stole My Heart: The Material Life of Chola Bronzes from South India, c. 855–1280.
From tracing the source of the copper which was needed in huge quantities, given that these bronzes were solid and not hollow, and that Tamil Nadu has no copper deposits, to exploring the role of women patrons who commissioned the bronzes, and the smallest of nuances of the work of the artists that created these bronzes which are “evocative, sensitive, exceedingly sensual in their portrayal of an idealised body”, the lectures are enlightening, to say the least.
Beginning by quoting from various poetic works that describe the gods, Dehejia looks at how the artists turned the meticulously detailed description of the ‘sensuous body of God’ by the artists and poet saints of Tamil Nadu and ‘translated this poetic ecstasy’ into these tangible pieces of artistic excellence.
One of the foremost instances of “outsourcing” old copper was sent from Aden to Mangalore for new products to be created from them and shipped back. But why was copper shipped to India, if India already had it? What was Sri Lanka’s role in the copper saga? Was copper a reason for the Chola obsession with the Lankan land? What is the importance of ornaments in the Indian artistic tradition? Many such questions have been answered in this series.