This year’s A.W. Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, which will be delivered by the Columbia University art historian Vidya Dehejia, look at bronzes from the south Indian Chola dynasty (850-1270) focusing, in part, on two pieces in the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art. The six talks, which are bundled together with the title “The Thief Who Stole My Heart: The Material Life of Sacred Bronzes in Chola India,” survey “the major role these pieces played in religious and social life,” Dehejia says. “Only a few people have ever worked on these objects and they have focused completely on dating, but that dating hasn’t put things into context.”
The below excerpt is adapted from Dehejia's fourth lecture, which will be delivered on 24 April. Additional talks will be delivered at 2PM on 3, 10, 17 and 1 and 8 May. A podcast recording of the lectures will be available after the series ends.
Shiva as Lord with the Bull, Tiruvenkadu (1011). Courtesy of Thanjavur Art Gallery
Join me briefly in the year 1010 at dawn. In a small coastal village along the Bay of Bengal where the river Kaveri enters the ocean, a master sculptor stirs the wax and resin that is bubbling in a large pot; he is carefully preparing the mixture for the image he is going to model. He thinks back to his conversation two days ago with the commander of a sel ect military regiment of the Chola monarch Rajaraja. The commander had sought him out, cash in hand, to ask him to create a majestic bronze image of Shiva with the bull. Yes, the master would make Shiva majestic. But he could not forget the hymn of the child saint Sambandar who addressed Shiva as “the thief who stole my heart.” The master resolved to make his image of Shiva the ultimate heart-stealer who would captivate one and all.
Shiva as Lord with the Bull, dedicated in the year 1011, is his resulting masterpiece. Elegantly poised to rest his weight on his left foot, his right foot bent at the knee and crossed in front so as to lightly rest his toes on the ground, this bronze Shiva, three-and-a-half feet tall, is bewitching in his beauty. Shiva’s left hand rests elegantly on his hip; his right arm is bent to place his elbow upon his now-missing bull. The firm tone of his lithe body gives him a commanding presence and the barest hint of a smile about his lush lips transforms him into an accessible figure whom the devotee may confidently approach. Our master abandoned the usual mode of portraying Shiva with his matted locks piled high on his head. Instead, he created a piece that is uniquely charismatic. Taking the length of Shiva’s matted locks, the master wound them around his head to create the effect of an elegant turban, with just the serpent hood to the right and the top of the trumpet flower to the left emerging above his locks. And just look at the way he positioned the crescent moon, while he was modeling in wax, so that it weaves under and over one of Shiva’s dreadlocks. The face, framed by the usual diadem, carries a serene contemplative look, his third eye adorns his forehead and he wears a large circular ring in one ear, while the other ear remains unadorned. We are reminded of Sambandar’s hymn describing the thief who stole his heart: "one ear is beringed". Firm-shouldered Shiva wears three necklaces and a sacred thread. His narrow torso is emphasised by a high waistband. His short dhoti, slung well below his navel, is held in place by an elaborate jeweled belt with a lion-head clasp, while fabric bands rest as looped curves below the clasp. Completing his adornment is an elbow band, a wristband, anklet and rings on eight fingers and eight toes with only the middle finger and middle toe left ringless. Seen from the rear, the image is, if anything, even more enchanting in its sensuous elegance and reveals the master’s unmistakable touch. It is unfortunate that we do not have his name, and must refer to him only as the Master of Tiruvenkadu, whose Shiva temple housed several of his masterpieces.
It is rare for Chola bronzes to be securely dated, but at Tiruvenkadu we are fortunate in having several inscriptions on temple walls and base moldings that provide information about donors and their gifts. None of these inscriptions has been translated into English, and even a complete Tamil version is not available in print or on-line. A trip to the offices of the Epigraphical Survey of India in the town of Mysore is necessary to get access either to the original or hand-copied versions of the rubbings. In the case of this glorious Shiva, a partly damaged inscription dated to the year 1011 informs us that it was set up by a military chief (nayaka) who belonged to a sel ect military regiment known by the name of emperor Rajaraja who ruled from 985-1012. The donor, Kadamban Kolakkavan, came from a town a mere 8 miles away. The inscription tells us also that this military chief was now making a gift of jewelled ornaments to adorn the bronze image. The unfortunate damage to the stone of the inscription deprives us of details about these jewels (but we may be sure they were sumptuous!) This bronze masterpiece is not a royal commission, but a gift from a military commander of the Chola king Rajaraja, an official of high stature who had the wherewithal to commission this superb image from our Master of Tiruvenkadu.
In Uma, Consort of Shiva with the Bull (1012), the companion image of Uma, who always accompanies lord Shiva, stands in serene elegance just over three feet tall. Gracefully poised in the triple-bend contropposto, her lovely oval face with its diadem is topped with a tall conical crown, while at the rear is a halo-like circle of glory. Her long skirt clings to her legs; it is slung way below the navel and held in place with belts ending in a decorative clasp. Part of the fabric of the wrap skirt is pulled into a pleated fold that rests along her left hip while the other end of the fabric forms loops closely similar to those on Shiva’s lower garment. Her slender torso, with its gently rounded breasts, is adorned with three necklaces, while a sacred thread snakes its way between her breasts. She wears elaborate armlets whose design resembles the decorative motif on her crown, and a simple elbow band, a cluster of bangles, and rings on eight fingers. The distinctive treatment of the hands, the ringed fingers and the gently rounded fingernails are among the signature touches of our master.
An inscription dated to the year 1012 contains intriguing information about the joint donation of this copper image of the goddess Uma to accompany the image of Shiva as the Lord with the bull. The gift was coordinated by a certain lord Sarpan, an accounting supervisor who belonged to the same select royal regiment as the chief who donated the Shiva image. Lord Sarpan didn't pay for the image himself, but he ensured that eleven other individuals contributed their share towards the expenses involved in commissioning the image of Uma, as well as the bull, to accompany the Shiva bronze created the previous year. The inscription is badly damaged along its central segment, yet it clearly indicates that 11 individuals commissioned the bronze. Immediately thereafter, in the same year of 1012, another chieftain donated a three-stringed gold chain for this image of Uma, and a gold flower to be placed on the knotted locks of Shiva when the image “took pleasure in his sacred bath.”
Vidya Dehejia is the Barbara Stoler Miller Professor of Indian and South Asian Art at Columbia University.