Bronzed beauties

Chola bronzes have been celebrated as among the finest examples of bronze casting in the world. The classic grace of the icons of Swamimalai lend them to be exquisite pieces of art, writes Aruna Chandaraju

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Foreigners taking selfies with the sthapathis, or the sculptors of Swamimalai; middlemen swarming around the rows of finished products and a documentary filmmaker interviewing the wife of one of the craftsmen — these were the sights that greeted me on my recent visit to this crafts-town.

Located near Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district, and about 300 km from Chennai, Swamimalai is home to nearly 2,000 craftsmen engaged in making the world-famous bronze idols and statues. These bronze works of art are prized across India and are even exported to different countries around the world like USA, UK, Italy, France, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Malaysia and Thailand. In the latter case, most of them are commissioned for temples built by NRIs in the respective countries. In recognition of their unique and outstanding art, Swamimalai bronze icons were awarded the prestigious Geogarphical Indication or GI tag in the year 2008-09.

The bronze icons of Swamimalai are exquisite pieces of art. The sculptors are justly proud of their heritage and skills. They belong to the Vishwakarma community and have been engaged in metal-casting work for generations. Many of these craftsmen and master craftsmen have won awards at the state and national level, too. We saw several of these certificates framed and hung on the walls of their homes. We were also shown photographs of these sculptors with ministers, different chief ministers of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh as well as with Indian celebrities and a few NRI philanthropists who had commissioned their work for overseas temples.

One of them, Rajan recounted to our group, the history of the art and their community. I listened on politely, even though it was my third visit and had heard this before. According to him, in India, the earliest bronze statues were cast around 2300 BC in the Indus Valley. The art saw its peak in South India during the reign of the art-loving Chola rulers (9th to 13th century AD).

A famous king of this dynasty, Rajaraja 1 commissioned a group of sculptors for the Bhrihadeeshwara Temple at Thanjavur, and as any visitor to this World Heritage Site can see, the work they turned out was superlative. These sthapathis worked on statues for Airavatheswara Temple. Later, they settled down as a community in Swamimalai. From then on, the Chola bronzes have been celebrated as among the finest examples of bronze casting in the world.

Panchaloha idols

Today, their creations are used as temple idols and statues in interior decor with the bigger ones among the latter finding place in five-star hotels and homes of the affluent. Generally, the size of a figure ranges from six inches to 12 feet. However, there may be differences based on customer requirements. The idols they make are of Hindu deities like Ganesha, Subramanya, Shiva, Rama. Krishna, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Parvathi, Saraswathi, Hanuman, etc. The dancer-Shiva or Nataraja is a popular product and a defining image of their artistry.

These deities are created complete with their vahanam or vehicle and holding a conch or chakram and a musical instrument too that is typical of the particular god/goddess. Sometimes, the figure of the deity is inspired by an episode in his or her life. So, while Krishna is generally sculpted standing in the tribhangi pose with a flute to his lips, he is also created in the Kaaliya Mardana pose — dancing over the coils of the poisonous serpent Kaaliya or expounding the Geetha to Arjuna.

The idols may be standalone pieces or also made as pairs — as in Shiva and Parvathi or Vishnu and Lakshmi. The icons also come in groups — a popular group has the figures of Rama, Seetha, Lakshmana and Hanuman. The bronze icons are placed on a pedestal which gives them stability apart from a stately appearance as the sthapathis told us. Most of these figures of gods and goddesses are installed in temples and duly worshipped by priests and devotees while a few make their way to homes where they are placed in puja rooms or just showcased elsewhere in the house as a work of art.

Besides idols for worship, the other line are statues of women or men and even animals which are used purely as showpieces. These men and women are generally sculpted holding lamps, or flowers with the lotus being a favourite, or a vessel or implement of some kind.

In detail

Whatever the size or subject, the attention to detail in each creation is amazing. The proportions are perfect. The technical brilliance of the icon is evident even to the untrained eye.

A friend of mine who was visiting for the first time was wondering why I was praising these craftsmen so profusely on our journey to this town. On reaching, I took her immediately to see what is generally regarded as one of the finest items in the Swamimalai bronze product line. One glance at the figure of Vishnu reclining majestically on the coils of Adiseshu with figures of Lakshmi at his feet and Brahma rising from his navel was enough to convince her of the extraordinary talent of these Swamimalai artists.

The technique of wax-casting is used to make the products using either the solid or hollow cast. A mould of the desired shape is made, The mould is heated to remove the wax after which molten metal is poured into the mould. After the metal cools, mould is broken and the metallic figure is polished and finishing touches are given.

Though this has been explained very simply, it is actually a very elaborate process as I observed. And one requiring great skill. And these skills are passed on from one generation to another — the youngsters learn from the seniors in their community.

Rajan told us the measurements are based on the principles used in the ancient Shilpa Shastras. The basic unit of measurement is thala (meaning ‘head’ in local parlance) and refers to the distance between the hairline and the point where the jaw ends. The thala is divided into 12 units called angulas which in turn have eight sub-divisions each. Ribbons of coconut tree leaves act as a scale for measurement.

Thanks to a strong pride that prevails in the state of Tamil Nadu about all aspects of their heritage, this craft is flourishing. There is tremendous support from the state government and Tamil Nadu Handicraft Development Corporation, as well as several private organisations. All this means that, barring a few problems, the current and future scenarios are very bright for this great art.

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