Art & Culture · Photography

Curves of Bronze

In the collections of the Metropolitan museum of art, NY is a small statue – that of the Hindu god Shiva as ‘Nataraja‘ – a form where he dances  an all consuming cosmic dance of destruction of the universe – to prepare for its renewal. The word, Nataraja literally means ‘Lord of dance’.

I look at this picture closely, and see he is dancing with a tranquil expression on his face. On closer observation , one appreciates his slender nose, round face, almond shape eyes and smooth shoulders.

Shiva as Lord of Dance (courtesy : metmuseum website)

I find more curves , an elliptical pedestal, a fiery halo, a round-headed demon underfoot. . The demon’s proportions are childlike, perhaps only to signify that it is no match – this is the demon of ignorance that leads men astray. Shiva’s matted locks fly freely in the air, in his left upper arm is the two headed drum he plays, and around his waist – little more than a loin cloth. In portraying the divine in human form, the artists didn’t imply sensuality, they explicitly portrayed it.

Where did this Nataraja statue come from? Description on the site says, 11th century, Chola period, Tamil Nadu, India and that it is a ‘brilliant invention’. It stops there and does not explain how this brilliance in sculpted form is achieved.

In the last four years, my quest to better understand this mysterious smile drove me to museums in Delhi,  Chennai and lastly Thanjavur where the palace museum revealed unexpected delights. My photo below is one out of their dozen natarajas – in a single row – each over three feet high and from the eleventh century AD!

Nataraja, 11th century, Palace Museum, Thanjavur

The caretaker explains- for over fifteen hundred years, artisans have practiced the craft of lost wax bronze casting here in Tamil Nadu. There’s no name for the ‘school’ per se but sometimes it’s called ‘chola‘ bronzes after the medieval Indian dynasty under whose tutelage the art reached its zenith, between ninth and thirteenth century AD.

Not every shiva statue is called a nataraja – there’re specific rules that the maker must follow. The ancient Indian manual of visual depiction, the Shilpa Shastras (The Science or Rules of Sculpture), contained a precise set of measurements and shapes for the limbs and proportions of the divine figure. “Arms were to be long like stalks of bamboo, faces round like the moon, and eyes shaped like almonds or the leaves of a lotus”. The Shastra leaves  to the craftsman to impress these short-lived curves of nature to everlasting hard metal.

To understand how, I traveled to Swamimalai, a village about seven hours drive from Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu, India. Here artisans employ traditional methods to make these wonderful statues in a process that typically lasts from two weeks to several months depending on the size of the product. Each statue is made by hand from start to finish.

Inside the workshop, a Sthapathi (caste of master craftsmen) gave the following details. To start with, the artisan kneads beeswax, camphor and oil.  This malleable substance is sculpted by the master artisan complete with minute details that are to be seen on the finished piece. This model is then coated with several layers of clay and left to completely dry out in the sun and then baked. The heat makes the wax inside melt leaving only a shell of hard crusted clay. This loss of wax gives the process its name ‘lost-wax’ or Cire Perdue. If a statue is large, the model may be covered with earth completely to allow for baking and pouring metal via holes on the side.

A sthapathi smiles in front of a mold ready for pouring from the side. It is a Ganesha idol on custom order

A molten alloy – brass, bronze or panchaloha (five metals) – is poured until the necessary thickness is achieved. Any residual wax evaporates as the metal fills all crevices. Breaking the mold reveals a statue. That day they had finished removing the burnt outer mold to reveal a ‘varahavatar’ (vishnu in his boar incarnation lifting up the goddess Ganges). In the background are a metal brush and a hammer, basic tools for this trade.

Vishnu as boar holding the goddess Ganges. Other auspicious symbols such as a conch shell and a ‘chakra’ wheel are seen.

The final, operative steps are to clean, smooth and polish each statue to a desired finish. These two at a nearby workshop were polishing a Ganesha – the elephant headed Hindu god associated with blessing new endeavors and removing obstacles.

Little more than a hammer and chisel in the twenty first century to finish these beautiful curves of bronze

Much of the finer output produced these days is exported from India to developed countries. The government of India donated a two meter tall nataraja to CERN, Switzerland within the last decade. Devasena Sthapathi at Swamimalai went to great lengths to explain that his principal buyers are in other countries and he had produced an enormous piece for a temple at Houston, Texas. The finished statue in front is panchaloha (five metals – including a pinch of gold that makes it shine so bright).

Master craftsman lays out a specimen of Panchaloha (five metal) nataraja and a catalogue

Irrespective of who made the piece and where it resides presently, what differentiates the master’s work from an apprentice’s are the proportions, the gracefulness of the limbs, the fluidity of posture, the beatific smile on the Lord’s face.

In forming bronze icons, the sculptors of Chola period surpassed those of the preceding dynasty, the pallavas (7-9th cent. AD.) and have not since been equaled. When i asked in Swamimalai, why modern pieces fade in comparison to what i saw in museums, he said ‘we don’t get the workers who can finish a face correctly. Only master craftsmen can. Very few of them are left.’

Are you a bronze-head too?  Please say ‘hi’ if you are. I’d be happy to talk about my experiences including how I bought a lovely piece for home.

Do you wonder as well how such lovely Curves can be formed without the use of modern technology? How can a process that does not involve machines produce life size lissome images of precise proportions like this Parvati statue I saw at a house cum workshop.

Life size statue of Parvati (Shiva’s devoted companion) at Swamimalai.