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This is art at its peak!

Exhibition Review: Chola Bronzes at the Royal Academy, London

On a wet Saturday afternoon at the Royal Academy of Arts in London you’ve now got two choices. There’s the Rodin blockbuster exhibition, predictably heaving and really only suitable for those who view gallery visiting as a contact sport. But if you climb higher, you can venture into another world. The gallery is almost empty, but the art – that of southern India from the 10th to 13th centuries — is every bit as spectacular.

You are entering the empire of Chola, one of the greatest Hindu empires. It traded with the Tang in China, Jewish traders in Aden and the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, yet it developed from the indigenous tradition a form of art all its own – the sacred bronze statue, designed often to be carried through the streets.

For it’s a curious fact that roughly contemporary with similar developments in Catholicism, the worship of Shiva here emerged from religious sanctuaries and on to the streets, associated with a great, emperor-supported temple-building programme, just as Europe was building its great cathedrals.

The visitor is greeted by a classic Shiva as Natajara, lord of the dance, from the 11th century. The god is within hoop of fire, balancing with the perfect poise of a prima donna. Every tilt of finger, every angle of every limb, is in perfect balance. This is an art at its peak. It fits perfectly with a hymn scripted on the wall:

If one may but see
The beauty of his lifted foot
Of golden glow,
Then indeed one would wish
For human birth upon this earth.

The exhibition then returns to the roots of this great outpouring in the 10th century. This work has the same iconographic dictionary as the later art: in a Shiva as Tripuravijaya (“victor of three cities”) the antelope (symbolizing mastery over nature) leaps from his top left forefinger, and the battleaxe (which is to conquer human ignorance) from the right. But it is all stiff, formulaic. You can almost feel the fear, the caution, the inexperience of the artists, feeling their way to a new tradition. But as you progress through the exhibition you see the confidence, the joy of artistic creation, shine through.

Some might fear that the art here is so foreign, so outside their experience, that they won’t be able to relate to it. But fear not, just seek out Ganesh, the elephant-headed god – a plump jolly child who brings out the same cross-cultural reaction as a fluffy kitten. You really can’t but smile at Ganesh.

And there are reminders that this was a multi-religious society. The same workshops that made the spectacular Shivas also made images of the Buddha and the Jina, as both religions flourished in South India at the same time.

In addition to the statues of the gods and their companions, such as Shiva’s bull Nandi, shown here in fine anatomical precision, mid head-toss, the artists could also let their talents loose on the images of the 63 wandering nayanmar (“saints”) of Shiva, whose images were usually found around the temple sanctum.

The most striking image here is of one of the three female saints, Karaikkal Ammaiyar, who as a young woman (she lived in coastal town of Karaikkal in the 6th century) asked Shiva to take away her beauty so she could devote herself to his worship. She is represented here as a stunning little bronze hunchback, gaunt so her ribs show and with the pendulous breast of an old woman. But innocent, joyous, youthful faith shines from her face, and she has the lithe limbs of an adolescent. (Handy, perhaps, for a wandering saint.)
It was perhaps inspired by one of her poems, which is reproduced in the catalogue:

Sagging breasts and swollen veins.
Protruding eyes. Bare white teeth and shrunken belly.
Reddened hair and pointed teeth,
Skeletal legs and knobbly knees
Has this female ghoul

It is an unforgettable image, like several others here.

The exhibition continues until February 25. With online booking. There’s a fine online gallery of similar bronzes here and a description of the method of production.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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