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Home > Tamil Culture - the Heart of Tamil National Consciousness > Bronzes of the Chola & Pallava Periods > The Sensuous and the Sacred - Dr. Sharada Srinivasan

The Sensuous and the Sacred

Dr.Sharada Srinivasan
a Young Scientist Awardee at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore
[published here with permission of the author - originally published in The Week, 22 June 2003]

The Cosmic Dance of Siva, or the dancing Nataraja made as a replica of the 10th century Chola prototype, is becoming a 21st century globalised icon

It was Fritjof Capra with his The Tao of Physics who catapulted the Nataraja, one of the most enduring cultural and religious symbols of India, into a global icon. In the Indian context, the icon has in recent years come to symbolise the resurgence of traditional craft and classical dance, whose revival owes greatly to two women whose birth centenaries are currently being celebrated-Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay who founded the Crafts Council of India and Rukmini Devi Arundale, who brought the Nataraja out of its temple confines into the centre stage of the Bharata Natyam performance. Fritjof Capra wrote that "Siva's dance is the dance of subatomic particles". The Nataraja made it to the cover of Time and has recently been appropriated as the logo of a London-based global environmental movement.

Capra was certainly not the first in portraying the Nataraja as a universal metaphor for the interface between science, spirituality, dance and art. But he definitely helped the idea to catch on. And celebrating this millennial leap in paradigm as a post-modernist icon of rapprochement between science and society, one of the biggest exhibitions of Chola Bronzes featuring this image among many others from that period is making its way across America, from the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington to the Dallas Art Museum and to the Cleveland Museum of Art, where it is currently on.

Billed as a "serene and sexy show" by Paul Richard of the Washington Post, the exhibition showcases the dignified sensuality of Chola divinities to a western audience more familiar with the dichotomy between the sensuous and the sacred of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. In the Indian tradition, however, the sacred can often be unapologetically sensuous and even the erotic, sacred.

Enduring charm: Dr Sharada Srinivasan demonstrating the Nataraja stance

Over a millennium ago in Tamil Nadu, Siva, who had been generally worshipped in the form of the stone lingam within the innermost sanctum of the temple, underwent a spatial transformation to become manifest in a host of movable anthropomorphic forms cast in metal, including the Nataraja. These temple icons known as utsava murtis were originally intended only for ritual processions during special festivals or auspicious times.

The late art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy, coined the now famous adage of "The Cosmic Dance of Siva" in the 1920s to describe the Nataraja imagery: whereby Siva with swirling locks dances over the dwarf demon of ignorance, apasmara, under the right foot, with the left leg extended and with flayed arms holding the drum and fire thought to signify creation and destruction respectively, surrounded by a ring of perpetual fire symbolising cosmic cycles. He hailed the Nataraja metal icon as "poetry but nonetheless science".

In his 1974 book on quantum physics, Capra wrote that "for modern physicists, Siva's dance is the dance of subatomic particles". The Nataraja made it to the cover of Time in a 90s article on a changing, reforming India and has even recently been appropriated as the logo of a London-based global environmental movement (GAEA).

How did this extraordinary tour de force of the Nataraja metal icon come into being? As a Bharata Natyam dancer and engineering graduate, I embarked on a doctoral thesis on the applications of archaeometallurgical investigations and techniques of scientific authentication in exploring metal technology, dates and find spots of images from southern India. Using micro-drilling techniques, I sampled about 130 metal icons from well known collections in India and abroad on which were done compositional and trace element analysis.

For the first time in the study of south Asian metal artefacts, lead isotope ratio investigations-a powerful finger printing method for exploring classifications in metal artefacts-were undertaken on these icons. Thus characteristic chemical profiles were obtained for different stylistic groups of images ranging from the early historic period; i.e. Satavahana or Sangam era (2nd-5th century), Pallava (7th-9th century), Chola (late 9th-11th century), Chalukya (8th-9th century), late Chola (12th-13th century), Vijayanagara (14th-16th century) and Nayaka periods (16th-18th century). This method enables images of uncertain stylistic attributions to be better dated and by which antiques may be authenticated from fakes.

Out of this alchemy popped a surprise: scientific evidence suggested that the metal icon of the Nataraja dancing with leg extended in the dance pose of bhunjangatrasita karana, which was generally thought to have been specifically a 10th century Chola innovation, had already emerged by the Pallava period, when the magnificent shore temples of Mahabalipuram were built. The hymns of the Tamil Saiva saint Appar suggest that by the 7th century the worship of Nataraja might have emerged at Chidambaram, where the Nataraja metal image is uniquely worshipped in the innermost garbha instead of the lingam.

The rich symbolism of the existing 12th century temple complex of Chidambaram (chit: consciousness; ambaram: cosmos) seems to celebrate Siva as not only the cosmic dancer but also the cosmic consciousness. Here, in the chit sabha or hall of consciousness, Siva is worshipped both as the akasa lingam, symbolised by empty space, and as the metal Nataraja icon, while the 108 karanas or cadences of Siva's dance are sculpted on the gopuras or temple towers. It is tempting to see in the symbolism the basic rudiments, or at least a metaphor, of ideas that have only more recently been grappled with in modern physics such as mass-energy equivalence, or notions put forth by physicist Roger Penrose for a possible grand unified theory of the forces of the universe, encompassing quantum consciousness.

Indeed, the inspiration linking dance and metal sculpture is probably an age-old one in the Indian subcontinent, going back to the Indus Valley/Harappan civilisation with the finds of a few metal figurines from Mohenjodaro of dancing girls with the hand on the hip that is, in a way, reminiscent of the dance form of Bharata Natyam from Tamil Nadu. That metal statues may have also been taken out in procession in antiquity is suggested by a late Harappan hoard from Daimabad in Maharashtra (c. 1500 BC) of an elephant, rhinoceros and bull which either have wheels, or holes below them possibly for poles to carry them around rather like the Pallava and Chola utsava murtis.

Curiously, like these Harappan or late Harappan statues, most south Indian metal icons are solid lost wax castings: whereby the model was first made from a solid piece of wax and then covered with layers of clay to form the mould, and then the wax would be melted out and the metal poured in. In contrast, metal statuary elsewhere in antiquity was generally hollow cast (whereby the wax model is made over a clay core so that a thin metal casting is made which retains the clay core) and this is seen right from Egyptian to Grecian to east Asian bronzes, including north Indian and Himalayan bronzes.

The convergence between the sensuous and the sacred is best epitomised by this graceful image known as the Freer Gallery Devi.

At the little hamlet of Swamimalai, about 30 km from Tanjavur with its celebrated 11th century Brihadisvara temple built by Raja Raja Chola, a few hereditary families of sthapatis or icon makers continue to make solid cast images in the traditional way. These artisans use palm fronds for marking out the tala system of proportions for icons. Although south Indian metal icons are generally referred to as pancha loha icons, i.e. five-metalled icons, analyses on Chola and other south Indian images show that most were of bronze while others were brass with nearly all containing added lead, with the occasional traces of gold and silver, which was apparently done for the sake of ritual or shastra and for auspicion.

My investigations showed that Chola icons of the 10th-11th century from the Tanjavur region, which are the best known from southern India, were mostly leaded bronzes with an average of about seven per cent each of tin and lead. That the extractive metallurgy of bronze was quite advanced in pre-industrial southern India is also indicated by investigations I made on archaeometallurgical debris and slags from Kalyadi in Karnataka showing exceptional evidence of co-smelting of copper and tin ores to produce bronze of that seven per cent tin.

Western connoisseurs have responded to Chola bronzes due to their naturalistic modelling comparable to European bronzes. French master sculptor Auguste Rodin who gave the world famed bronzes such as the Thinker, compared the grace of a 11th century Chola Nataraja from Velankanni to that of a Medici Venus. Not surprisingly, the current exhibition in the US is titled The Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola Bronzes from South India, with a catalogue edited by Vidya Dehejia, curator of the exhibition who was until recently associate director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

This convergence between the sensuous and the sacred is best epitomised for me by a graceful image in the permanent collection of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery & Freer Gallery of Art better known as the Freer Gallery Devi. This image may be a portrait of the widowed 10th century Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi as argued by Vidya Dehejia. Sembiyan Mahadevi, wife of Gandaraditya Chola, was widowed around 957 AD and lived until about 1006 AD.

The portrait seems to blend the restrained elegance of a chaste and pious widow with the un-selfconscious sensuality of a confident and powerful queen who presided over an unprecedented surge in Chola artistic activity. Under Sembiyan Mahadevi, not only did stone sculptures of Nataraja come for the first time widely into vogue in her temples, but images of Ardhanarishvara, of Siva and Sakti conjoined in a unity of male and female principles, also came into greater prominence, making her something of a remarkable 10th century feminist icon, whom art historian J.C. Harle has described as "one of the great patrons of all time".

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