- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 9, 2002

Shiva, the omnipotent male-female, destroyer-creator of the universe, dominates the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery exhibit, "The Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola Bronzes From South India." It focuses on the artistry of bronze casting during the south Indian Chola dynasty (9th-13th centuries).

Yet, the images of Shiva especially as Lord of the Dance and shining embodiment of supreme power elevate and electrify the show. Icon of the Chola peoples, the god embodies the Indian cyclical, cosmological view of the world. The exhibit's "Shiva as Nataraja, Lord of Dance" (c. 1150) pictures him repeatedly destroying the world through his "dance of bliss" as exhibit curator Vidya Dehejia says only to recreate the universe time and time again. It is the Hindu image best known to Westerners.

While Shiva performs the cosmic dance, the universe becomes the light reflected from his limbs as he moves with the sun's sphere. There are numerous interpretations of the god in the exhibit: "Shiva as Shrikantha, Lord of the Auspicious Neck"; "Shiva as Kshetrapala, Guardian of the Sacred Site, or Bhairava"; and "Shiva as Ardhanari (half-woman)."

Mrs. Dehejia, former chief curator and deputy director of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Sackler Gallery, now holds the Barbara Stoler Miller Chair in Indian Art at Columbia University. Being raised in south India with the Tamil language, Mrs. Dehejia is one of the few scholars who could curate an exhibition on Chola dynasty ritual bronzes. She was able to view the temple gods and goddesses because she speaks Tamil, the language of the temple priests.

The Smithsonian Institution's Sackler Gallery and the American Federation of Arts organized the exhibition of 70 bronzes and 38 pieces of jewelry. After closing at the Sackler on March 9, the show travels to the Dallas Museum of Art (April 4-June 15) and the Cleveland Museum of Art (July 6-Sept. 14).

Visitors may be puzzled when they see the many attributes of the god, as well as those of another Shiva, in the "Dancing Shiva Gallery." The images stand in tense splendor, their right feet standing on the dwarfish "Mushalagan," symbolizing darkness. Their raised, perfectly balanced left feet indicate redemption and gracefulness.

The four-armed dancer possesses different symbols. In the two arms in back, he holds the fire that represents destruction of the world and a damaru drum that stands for creation. The sculptor raised Shiva's right front hand as a sign of protection and extended the other in an elegant gesture.

The many forms of shiva, as well as the exhibit's other Hindu gods Vishnu, Brahma, Devi, Uma, Krishna, Rama and Parvati and their combinations may appear strange to visitors. Shiva combined with the preserver Vishnu into a single image could seem confusing.

Visitors must be aware, and need to constantly remember as they walk through the splendidly installed and lit galleries, that Hindus worship one divine being in many names and forms. The museum effectively adds to the ambience by piping Indian music throughout the show.

"Multiplicity is as natural to Hindus as singularity is to monotheists and in keeping with their view of the infinite as a diamond of innumerable sparkling facets. This multiplicity is what energizes the art," Mrs. Dehejia explains.

Shiva is often shown with his consort Uma, in her role as wife and mother, and as loving father to his sons, the roly-poly elephant-headed Ganesha and Skanda.

Uma also could be the Great Goddess Devi, one of the supreme deities; or the protective warrior goddess Durga, destroyer of demons; and the repulsive Kali, the fierce protector fitted out with snakes and skulls and holding a noose and skull cap. It is obvious these gods get in and out of each other's skins quickly.

Vishnu usually holds his attributes, a discus and conch shell. He wears a tall crown and abundant jewelry and is accompanied by his wife, Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and fortune. He is associated with 10 avatars, or different forms, to protect people on Earth whenever evil arises.


Chola bronze casters produced some of the greatest metal sculptures ever created. Members of hereditary guilds of craftsmen made most of the bronzes. It is not surprising that they fashioned this fascinating cast of Hindu characters with fine copper alloys and expert modeling of the clay molds. Wax was poured through these molds during the "lost wax process," which was used for singularly detailed sculptures.

As sculptures, these bronzes are the most important art objects to come out of south India. Metal became the favorite medium and displaced stone as the major expressive material. Many of the exhibit's relaxed but lithe images have the spring and tension of the metal from which they were made.

The wealthy Chola rulers commissioned the bronze deities as aids to worship (called "puja") and to proclaim their piety and wealth. The puja images could be very small. They were often carried in the hands of their owners or used in personal shrines.

Large images could be almost life size. Some were placed in temples and were well preserved. Others were taken from niches in worship places and carried around in processions. The Sackler sent photographer Neil Greentree to document what these processions look like today.

His photomural in the "dancing shiva gallery" shows the god dressed in fine silks. Only the god's head appears above the cloths that hide the whole body except for the face. Another "Shiva Nataraja" image, effectively set against a fuchsia-colored panel that visitors confront as they descend to the exhibit's second level, is dressed in real fabrics simulated from earlier designs.

Scholars do not know why Chola priests took these deities out of the temples at this particular time, but it was a major change in Hindu religious and aesthetic practice. "We don't have actual documentation as to why the gods would assume the role of human monarchs, like giving audiences and inspecting the temple premises," Mrs. Dehejia says.

The curator humorously remembers her 30 years of research in some 400 temples to which she gained entrance because of her knowledge of the Tamil language. Temples normally are closed to foreigners.

"The priests were especially sensitive in the case of Chola bronzes, as they're still used in temple worship," she says.

The curator wanted to photograph the original, undressed figures before the priests bathed them in milk, curd, honey, sugar and butter and clothed the gods in fresh garments. She had to come before sunrise to keep the photography private.

Jewelry was always an important adornment for the gods and the Chola rulers, and many samples are exhibited throughout the Sackler show. Mrs. Dehejia organized the exhibit around the paradoxical mingling of the spiritual and sensual, showing that jewels were not the only way to express beauty.

She wanted to juxtapose the experience of the devotional Hindu devotee the spiritual component of the exhibit's title and the secular appreciation by art lovers of the unadorned, sensual sculptures. Although these differences and definitions may escape the usual visitor, this is an exceptionally handsome and challenging show.


WHAT: "The Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola Bronzes From South India"

WHERE: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through March 9, except Dec. 25

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/357-4880

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