While the finest of the bronze sculptural tradition of India is to be found in temples of the South, the pieces curated here do a great job of conveying the workmanship and beauty of the skill of working with bronze. Bronze-sculpting began with the Pallava dynasty in the eighth century in the Tamil districts of Thanjavur and Tiruchirapalli but gained momentum under the patronage of the Chola dynasty in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Metal followed stone as a medium as the Pallavas came to power. Despite the period of classical sculpture having ended in the eighteenth century, to this day Tamil Nadu continues to produce superb bronze art in keeping with the eye-watering standards established by the forefathers of present-day sculptors.
When the Bronze Age was established, it became a highly appreciated metal among people of that Age. Different human societies entered the Bronze Age at different times. But most people claim that it was introduced during the Mesopotamian Era (3300 BCE). It was simultaneously introduced to India around the same time. During that era Bronze became a highly desired metal for jewellery and continued to be utilised for making articles for various purposes of daily use, such as utensils for cooking, eating, drinking, etc. Bronze is one of the oldest and classiest metals for jewelry available in India. If one goes by the historical evidence and artefacts, one can see that most of the exquisite pieces of jewelry were made out of bronze.
The small bronze figurine of a ‘Dancing Girl’ in tribhanga posture found from Mohenjo-Daro datable to 2500 BCE is the first of a long tradition of making bronze sculptures. Since then, bronze sculptures and statuettes of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain icons have been discovered from many regions of India dating from the second century until the sixteenth century. A group of bronze statuettes have been discovered from the archaeological excavation at Daimabad (Maharashtra) datable to 1500 BCE. Most of these were used for ritual worship and are characterised by exquisite beauty and aesthetic appeal. Interesting images of Jain Tirthankaras have been discovered from Chausa, Bihar, belonging to the Kushana Period during the second century CE. The hoard of bronzes discovered in Akota near Vadodara established that bronze casting was practised in Gujarat or western India between the sixth and ninth centuries. Among the Pallava Period bronzes of the eighth century is the icon of Shiva seated in ardhaparyanka asana (one leg kept dangling). The well-known dancing figure of Shiva as Nataraja was evolved and fully developed during the Chola Period.
The Cholas popularised the use of Panchaloha in the making of bronze statues. It is a mix of five alloys - brass, gold, copper, silver and zinc. The five also represent the five elements that symbolically sanctify the cosmic core of sacred images. Melted in the right proportion to form a shining metal, this alloy has been the strong base for bronze statues. Another material used is the Ashtadhatu which means 8 metals. It is an alloy of gold, silver, copper, lead, tin, zinc, iron and antimony. Statues made of Ashtadhatu are considered sacred and pure in India. Since ancient times, a craft associated with the making of Ashtadhatu utensils for religious offerings, weddings and other social ceremonies and even personal use, has existed in India.
Bronze sculpture can be cast using several different techniques.
The basic principle is applying molten bronze into a mould and leave it to set, before removing the mould, chasing the finished piece (refining and defining the object using a hammer) and applying a patina. The variation occurs in how the moulds are made exactly how the liquid bronze is applied to the mould. By far the most common technique for producing bronze sculptures is the ‘lost wax' method.
The lost-wax process also called cire-perdue involves several different steps. First, a wax model of the image is made by the hand using pure beeswax that has first been melted over an open fire and then strained through a fine cloth into a basin of cold water. Here it solidifies immediately. It is then pressed through a pichki or pharni — which squeezes the wax into a noodle-like shape. These wax wires are then wound around to the shape of the entire image. The image is now covered with a thick coating of paste, made of equal parts of clay, sand and cow-dung. Into an opening on one side, a clay pot is fixed. In this molten metal is poured. The weight of the metal to be used is ten times that of wax. (The wax is weighed before starting the entire process.)
This metal is largely scrap metal from broken pots and pans. While the molten metal is poured into the clay pot, the clay-plastered model is exposed to firing. As the wax inside melts, the metal flows down the channel and takes on the shape of the wax image. The firing process is carried out almost like a religious ritual and all the steps take place in dead silence. The image is later chiselled with files to smoothen it and give it a finish. Casting a bronze image is a painstaking task and demands a high degree of skill.
The cire-perdue method, popularly called the vanishing wax method, is followed up with finishing sculptural touches, which means that the bronzes you see on this page are the best of the model as well as carved. Besides a few Buddhist and Jain images, bronze sculptures usually draw from the Hindu pantheon, from handheld icons for home temples to larger-than-life sculptures designed for the elaborate processions the South is famous for.
Typically fully formed in all angles of view - the hallmark of quality bronze sculpting - an unputdownable dynamism, a subtle tension of quivering balance, and unsurpassed elegance characterise this thoughtfully curated collection.
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