I was a mere five hour drive away from Madras and yet I felt as if I had time-traveled into another world and era, to a place where South India, as I saw it in my mind’s eye, still survived, gentle, calm, awash in devotion and tradition. I was in and around Thanjavur and the Kaveri River delta, and why was it a surprise that I felt this way, because life here seems to belong to another age, to move to a different rhythm. This land, this river, this city, these environs, had, for several centuries, been the jewel in the crown of the great Chola Empire. The winds of history have tempered its eminence, and this region is now quietly content to lie in fame’s shadow, to surrender its position of celebrity to the younger, brasher, livelier, more prominent and influential seat of authority to the north, Madras.
I was in Thanjavur for a little over a day, and wanted to pack in as much as possible. There was the Big Temple, of course, the breathtakingly magnificent Brihadeeshwara Temple, but I was also keen on learning more about the bronze sculptures that are a millennium-old tradition here, one that is not merely alive, but thriving. Some years ago, I had listened, riveted, as Vidya Dehejia of Columbia University spoke about these idols that were unabashedly sensual yet worshipped with profound religious passion, the kind that sees how the erotic and the chaste can - as they do, in life - commingle, and that does not view the corporeal and spiritual as incompatible entities that cannot exist together. The perfect physical form of a god in the idol is but a manifestation of his or her divine inner beauty. She explained how, around a thousand years ago, the art of bronze casting started its efflorescence in the Thanjavur region, learned possibly from the Pallavas of Kanchipuram, but flourishing, and achieving the pinnacle of perfection and exquisiteness, under the Chola kings.
The idols became a vital part of the life and rituals of the temples, beautifully bedecked with flowers, silks and jewelry, taken around the streets atop the temple chariot to survey the lands they glorified, to bless and be worshipped, to be adored and venerated by young and old, those of high caste and low, man and woman. They have heard the clamor of the crowds and frantic drumbeats, priestly incantations and music, they have braved the blazing sun and raging thunderstorms, the intense humidity and high winds, they have witnessed the ebb and flow of the river, of kings and empires, of life itself. Through it all their radiance has remained undimmed.
And now many of them stand in silent, dimly lit rooms, staring impassively ahead, prisoners of their sterile climate-controlled glass cocoons as hushed visitors to museums around the world gaze, awestruck, at them. Do they miss the heat, the dust, the thousand hands eagerly reaching to touch and be blessed, the pomp and pageantry, the music, their homeland?
Oh dear. I got carried away. Let me get back on track. I had also read William Dalrymple’s story in his book Nine Lives about Srikanda Sthapathi, a bronze idol sculptor in Swamimalai, a small town some 30 kilometers downriver from Thanjavur. Srikanda Sthapathi (Sthapathi means temple sculptor; like doctor, it is a title or moniker that is given to anyone in this profession) boasts a bronze-sculpting lineage that goes back to the time of the greatest of the Chola kings, Raja Raja Chola; those long-ago ancestors actually made some of the original bronze idols for the Brihadeeshwara Temple. For generations, for a thousand years, members of his family kept the tradition of this art form alive, considering themselves truly blessed to be involved in the bringing to birth of something that was endowed with divine power and grace. And now that thousand-year thread was going to be snapped as Srikanda’s son, bowing to the exigencies and realities of the present times, wanted to pursue the very modern profession of computer engineering. Srikanda was saddened, yet understanding. The break was inevitable; it was Srikanda’s millstone to bear that it had to happen in his lifetime, to his immediate descendant.
But there are many other families that, for now at least, continue to make bronze sculptures following a practice that has remained largely unchanged for a thousand years. And the very nice and friendly receptionist at my hotel told me that there was an Art Village in Thanjavur where I could actually watch the sculptures being made, and also buy anything I might want. He thrust an Incredible !ndia Tamil Nadu Tourism brochure on Thanjavur at me, pointing to a section on this Art Village which promised, “ A visit to it will be very Education”.
I had visited several art and handicraft expos in Madras that came with the assurance that we would be interacting with the actual artists with no middlemen in sight. These expos generally consisted of rows and rows of stalls that occupied a large open area, selling all manner of traditional handicrafts. A token artist sat in front of many of these stalls, carving, or etching, or painting something in a desultory manner, clearly there just to give us city folk the thrill of watching an actual artist at work. A lot of what was sold was definitely hand-crafted, but there was certainly a good deal of machine-manufactured, mass-produced stuff as well. I assumed the Art Village in Thanjavur would be no different.
The address given in the brochure provided the haziest notion of where the place might be; after several wrong turns and with shortening tempers we followed the directions of a confident-sounding policeman and found ourselves at the end of a narrow, dusty lane, with nowhere further our car could go. I asked a few people standing around - amusement shone in their eyes as they told me there was no such thing, no such place there. But my father had walked on down another little street and came back to tell us that yes, something like that did exist, just a few footsteps away! And there it was! Nothing like any Art Village I had ever seen - but a simple, humble home with a little seating area in front as was common in so many homes in those parts, a low door, and then, a room, crammed with Tanjore paintings!
Now, I am not a great fan of modern-day Tanjore paintings - I find them too loud and garish, but this room had some real treasures, some over a hundred years old, just piled up carelessly all over the place, dust-coated and many with broken frames. The older Tanjore paintings are more muted and subtle and are a far cry from the over-baubled contemporary versions. A man came to the room from the back of the house and I asked him if this was the Art Village. He thought about it for a second and seemed to think it best to agree and say yes, it was. I asked him if he made bronze statues, and he asked us to follow him, stooping through one low doorway after another, until he came to the backyard of the house, which was alive with the sounds of crowing roosters and trilling birds.
In the back, several indescribably lovely sculptures of balletic grace stood in casual disarray surrounded by a folded charpoy of a gaudy green plastic, a roll of blue cloth and an untidy stack of newspapers. Nearby, in front of a wall that had the Brihadeeshwara Temple painted on it, a fire roared and spat sparks into the air. A bench with chipping green plaster hosted a short Ganesha, a gently luminous Nataraja and two other statues, both in the tribhanga posture; a gleaming pot of drinking water and an almost-empty bottle of oil were their unlikely companions. Off to one side, under the shade of an asbetsos cover, a middle-aged man sat, on the floor, silently engaged in the task of fine-chiseling a sculpture. Next to him was a rusting shelf that held a row of pictures of various deities, a few small, exquisite bronze sculptures and another untidy stack of newspapers. Further back, there was a small, whitewashed room with a thatched roof. This was the shop, and its shelves were crammed with the most delightful assortment of sculptures, all made right there. The man showing us around was soft-spoken and humble. He took only cash, which I did not have enough of with me, but he told me, with a belief in my honesty, a conviction about mankind’s essential goodness that left me dumbfounded, that I could take anything I wanted and pay for it later, whenever I had the money. I cannot imagine anybody in Madras or New York telling me, or even thinking, this. Life in a big city makes a mockery of trust in fellow humans. I told him that I would return later to buy a few small things.
The sthapathi offered to show us some of the steps involved in making the idols. The method, called the lost wax method is brilliant and has been in use since the time of Raja Raja Cholan in the 11th century. He showed us a brown blob, flecked with bits of what looked like straw, which he told us was beeswax. He pointed to a piece of beehive lying discarded on the ground; he said that they bought the hives from which they extracted the wax, from nearby bee farmers. Next he showed us a black blob, which he said was a kind of resin. The two, the wax and the resin, are warmed and mixed together into something resembling play putty, or playdoh, in consistency. This is molded into whatever the statue is going to be. For us, he deftly made a tiny hand, complete with fingernail details, out of a small piece of the wax-resin mixture.
The wax model is then covered with clay and this is left to harden. The silt from the Kaveri River, particularly that around Swamimalai, is of excellent quality to make the clay molds. Once the clay mold (with the wax model inside) is hard and dry (this can take several days, depending on the size of the statue, and the weather), a small hole is chipped into the bottom, and the clay mold is heated over a fire. This makes the wax melt, and the melted wax runs out of the chipped out hole, leaving a statue-shaped hole inside the clay mold.
Molten metal - bronze - is then carefully poured into this hole that formerly held the wax model. The stapathi demonstrated this to us. From the fire, he picked out a crucible that glowed fiercely with the liquefied metal. On the ground lay a small clay mold, into which he poured the scarlet metal. He wore absolutely nothing to protect himself from a possible accident, but he was unfazed by this, his movements sure and steady. He let out a hiss of disappointment as the hot metal cracked a small part of the clay mold and ran, with a fizzing sound, off track. He said that this happened every now and then - pouring the hot metal correctly was a fiendishly difficult task; also, if the clay mold was defective in any way, or the temperature of the metal was not just right, there would be air bubbles, cracks and leaks.
Next, he picked up the burning hot clay and metal mold and poured water over it. Fierce hissing sounds and a cloud of steam arose as the stapathi squatted near an old bucket full of water and sloshed some repeatedly over the mold until the hissing and steaming stopped. He then broke open the clay and showed me the sculpture. It was to have been the head of Ganesha, but the errant stream of metal resulted in a runaway trunk that made it look a bit misshapen. The final step would be to chisel in the details by hand. This was what the older man, our stapathi’s father, was doing, steadily, silently, patiently, paying no heed to us or our questions.
Here is a video I took of what we saw.
Our stapathi told us that all the male members of his family - his father, brothers and uncles, were in this business. They made sculptures and sold them to shops. Some of them made it to temples for their festivals. He was a modest man, eager and happy to show us around and answer our questions, with a quiet pride in what he did.
I was awed. In America we seem to think that huge sums of money have to be invested to produce great art and artists. I saw how in this humble but homey setting, unshakeable faith and belief, the power of tradition, and a deep gratification from the nature of the work, are all that are needed to produce art of great beauty.
We thanked the men and left. Alas, things got hectic and busy, as they are wont to, and I did not go back and buy anything as I told the stapathi I would. But I will, another day, another time.
Later that day we drove to Swamimalai, to see a different set of stapathis at work. We had but the vaguest notion of who and what to see, but once we reached Swamimalai, after a heart-stirringly lovely ride through the lush green countryside with the river glinting alongside us, an old man, teetering precariously off balance on a weatherbeaten old bicycle, told us to go to the home of Devasenapathy Sthapathi, the most famous Stapathi in Swamimalai. It was, he assured us, just around the corner.
Several corners later we found his home and entered. The two rooms in the front of the house served as an office, where a man sat thumbing through a large ledger and seemed unconcerned by all of us just walking in and around. Inside, there was a large room where men worked on an assortment of statues of all sizes, that were in various stages of production. Everyone was engrossed in the work; nobody spared us a second glance or stopped to talk to us. This place, which makes statues on commission for people and temples around the world, had the feel of a small manufacturing workshop and lacked the cozy, friendly charm of the Art Village. I will now let some pictures do the rest of the talking.