SYLVIA VETTA welcomes the first exhibition in this country devoted to Hindu art of the Chola dynasty.
The skills of that master of bronze modelling, Auguste Rodin were celebrated in a superb exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. Until the end of February, in the Sackler Wing you will encounter another display of sculptures from India – Chola: Sacred Bronzes of Southern India. I visited both shows and guessed the timing was not a coincidence.
In the 19th century, racism and prudery prejudiced British eyes to the beauties of Indian art. Dancing Shivas and voluptuous Umas are exquisitely sensuous, almost erotic. These sculptures were made for Hindu temples and were dismissed as pagan by the establishment.
In 1913, Rodin saw some Chola bronzes and was overwhelmed. He said: “There is grace in elegance; above grace, there is modelling; everything is exaggerated; we call it soft but it is powerfully soft!”
Fifteen years ago, visiting the cave temple on Elephanta Island off Mumbai, I remember the delightful guide standing in front of a huge stone carving of Shiva, whose parts had been castrated by Catholic Portuguese. He sighed deeply and said: “Westerners do not understand Hinduism.” That is still true. It is not a religion, more a guide to life.
There are almost as many ideas as there are Hindus. Atheism, monotheism and devotion to particular avatars are all valid forms of Hinduism. As a culture, it regards the body as a temple and celebrates beauty. The temples at Khajuraho, for example, show physical love like a first rung on a spiritual ladder. Probably, the best approach for Europeans is to simply enjoy these temple bronzes as works of art. They were cast during the Chola dynasty, which arose in southern India in the ninth century and grew to dominate the region.
Some of the sculptures are covered in a green film because they have been excavated from the pits in which they were buried in the 14th century.
The tragedy for Hindu art was the Mughal invasion. In Cultural History of India, P.S.Rawson writes: “The spoils from Hindu temples by early Muslim invaders are reported by historians of Islam to have been immense. All that has now vanished, virtually without trace.”
After looting the northern temples of their gold and jewels, the Mughals destroyed them. They did not succeed in ruling the south. This meant that the temple Brahmins had time to bury many bronzes and most temples survive. Similarly, in the 16th century many coastal towns concealed their images when the Portuguese raided and many have only been rediscovered by archaeologists in the past century. To see the remnants of the ancient culture we must visit the south, Bali and even Cambodia.
Typical of the tolerance of Hinduism, this exhibition shows sculptures of the other Indian religions of that period. Images of Buddhist and Jain saints were cast in the same workshops and were respected. But it is the Hindu gods and goddesses which steal the limelight.
There is male/female partnership. Shiva and Uma, in the north known as Parvati, Vishnu and Durga , Radha and Krishna, Sita and Rama are often spoken of in one breath. The female gods are more than paramours; they, too, are powerful. Male and female are sensuously graceful.
Here is the poem that describes the dancing Shiva: O Lord Shiva On that day when you looked at me You enslaved me In grace entered me And out of love melted my mind.
And of Uma Fresh as newborn lotus buds Lustrous and honeyed like young coconuts.
filled with the nectar of the gods are the breasts of the resplendent Uma.
The curator of the exhibition, Prof Vidya Dehejia, said: “It is not regarded as wrong to celebrate the breasts of the goddess or the lingum of Shiva.” The images are, however, dressed before being paraded through Indian streets. Beauty is the outside but the inner being is powerful; none more so than the images of Shiva in this exhibition. He is the creator and destroyer.
Modern science reveals universes constantly being destroyed and created. To a Hindu that is the cosmic dance of Shiva. He dances in a ring of fire and this represents the cycle of life. Now that we understand ecology and natural cycles better; this is a good time to approach ancient Indian thinking with an open mind. It needs a very jaundiced eye not to admire the exquisite beauty of many of these bronzes. To an Indian, there is much that is symbolic in them. That repetition may have hindered western appreciation.
If this exhibition prompts a little research, then that is all to the good. China and India will be power engines in this century. Last year the RA mounted the fine China, The Three Emperors Exhibition. Chola is smaller but still worth the visit.
Chola: Sacred Bronzes of Southern India is at the Roal Academy, until February 25. For details visit www.royalacademy.org.uk