The Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola Bronzes from South India

Among the most spectacular works of Indian sculptural art are the templebronzes cast a thousand years ago in the Tamil-speaking region of southIndia during the Chola dynasty. The Hindu god Shiva Nataraja (Lord ofthe Dance) embodies the Chola aesthetic. Gracefully poised upon the demonof ignorance, his supple limbs engaged in the dance of cosmic creationand destruction, Shiva is the luminous embodiment of transcendent power.

Shiva Nataraja was the family deity of the Chola dynasty, the dominant cultural, artistic, religious, and political force in south India for a period of four hundred years from the ninth to the thirteenth century. The Chola kings and queens consolidated their power and proclaimed their piety by dedicating majestic temples and commissioning superb bronzes. The regal poise of Shiva’s consort, Uma, and the impish charm of the elephant-headed Ganesha exemplify the graceful movement, supple modeling, and variety of Chola bronzes. Each bronze is a unique piece, sculpted first in wax and then cast in the lost-wax process, in which molten metal is poured into a hand-fashioned clay mold that must be broken apart to yield the final bronze.

Chola bronzes mark not only an aesthetic triumph but also a dramatic shift within Hindu temple practice. While every Hindu temple has at its center an immovable image of the main deity, portable bronzes were ritually enlivened by priests and then paraded out of the inner sanctums to meet and grace devotees. Chola audiences encountered these deities opulently draped in silks, jewels, and fragrant garlands, borne upon palanquins, and amid the clamor of drums and chanting. To evoke this multisensory ritual context, the exhibition includes a Shiva Nataraja draped in silk, displays of gem-encrusted gold jewelry, recordings of south Indian classical music, and verses from the Tamil poet-saints that speak of the wondrous beauty of the gods.

The Sensuous and the Sacred brings together sixty bronzes from national and European collections. It is the first exhibition in the United States devoted solely to the art of the Chola bronze.