Q. Describe briefly the features of bronze sculpture art that reached its zenith during the Chola era.

Approach:

  • Introduce the Chola bronze art – why it is considered as the high stage of development
  • Divide the answer into subparts – patronage, religious purpose, technology, and iconography
  • Also mention various examples to substantiate the points
  • Within the subparts, try to trace the chronological development.

Model Answer

The Chola period is well known for the aesthetic and technical finesse of its metal sculpture. Although the tradition started in ancient past, it reached a high stage of development in South India during the Chola period when some of the most beautiful and exquisite statues were produced. The distinguished patron during the tenth century was the widowed Chola queen, Sembiyan Maha Devi.

 The Purpose:

The images were clothed and ornamented and formed part of temple rituals and ceremonials. Many of the southern images were carried about in processions. Many Shiva temples of South India have a separate natana-sabha, where the image of Nataraja is placed. This can be seen in the temple at Chidambaram.

 The Technique:

Indian sculptors had mastered the bronze medium and the casting process quite early. The ‘lost-wax’ process for casting was learnt during the Harappan Culture. This technique and art of bronze images was skillfully practised in the urban centres of South India like Kumbakonam.

 The early Pallava bronze representations of Nataraja are metal translations of wooden images. Later, in the Chola period, craftspeople recognized the greater tensile strength of metal in comparison with wood. Unlike the northern images that were made out of an alloy of eight metals (gold, silver, tin, lead, iron, mercury, zinc, and copper) while the southern ones are made of an alloy of five metals (copper, silver, gold, tin, and lead) and were solid, not hollow.

 Themes and Iconography:

The sculptors largely confined to the iconographic conventions established by long tradition and yet exercised their imagination and worked with greater freedom during the eleventh and the twelfth centuries. As a result, the bronzes images of this era show classic grace, grandeur and taste. It also absorbed some folk iconographic elements into the mainstream religious or court art (eg images of Andal)

The well-known dancing figure of Shiva as Nataraja was evolved and fully developed during the Chola period and since then many variations of this complex bronze image have been modelled. It is primarily depicted as performing angry tandava or blissful tandava. There are differences in the expression, ornamentation, the number of arms, and in the attendant figures. A wide range of Shiva iconography was evolved in the Thanjavur region of Tamil Nadu (eg. Kalyanasundara, Panigraha, Ardhinarishwar, Bhikshatana etc). Other themes include Krishna and the Alvar and Nayanmar saints. There are a few Buddhist images as well.

Later on, during the post-Chola era, there was increasing ornamentation and elaboration of bronze art that continued the iconographic features of the Chola period but became more and more baroque.

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