In recent times, the Chola fresco paintings of Tanjore have been in the limelight for various reasons. Not many know that these 1000-year-old frescoes, were discovered as early as 1931 - by a 28-year-old historian, S.K. Govindaswami. Thankfully the HIndu did republish the article giving credit to the right person for the find.
Sadly, even after 80 years - there are not many published works on these beautiful paintings and some rare attempts have been met with copyright and other issues. Normal visitors to the site are also not allowed permission to view these !! As i write this, i am forced to use already published photos on the net, but then the question lingers that when the artist himself didn’t sign the work,preferring to remain forever immortal yet anonymous, who are we to put copyrights on mere photos, thereby diminishing the great tradition of this land and depriving many of the sheer joy of viewing these.
To truly understand and appreciate the greatness of this artist, i wish to showcase one small panel in a fresco - the ascent of Saint Sundarar ( on Indra’s white elephant) along with Cheraman Perumal ( on a white horse) to the heavens. Much has been already written upon the theme of this panel and i am given to understand a few Phd thesis have been presented on it, sadly as is the case with many of our draconian policies, these are never accessible to anyone !!! Anyway, coming back to the post, we are going to see only a small portion of this panel - to be specific just Cheraman Perumal and the horse.
Before we dwell further, just a short note on why i wanted to showcase this particular work. Somehow, horses have a certain raw energy in them, the ripple of the muscle, the grace of the arching limbs, the sway of the tail and mane - they are an artist’s delight ( next only to beautiful women)!. No wonder Da Vinci did considerable studies on them. Recently there was a program on Discovery or National Geographic about one of his unfinished works - a collosal 24 foot bronze horse. As i was following up on the sheer effort the great artist had put on the study of horses, there was something familar about it. See his sketches and read on..
Photos: Various sources on the net
We now come to the Chola fresco. Sri C. Sivaramamurthy, one of the greatest connoisseurs of art and chola art in particular, writes about this specific piece thus ( he has sketched the outline as well for us to enjoy)
The picture of the rider on the horse in fig. 2 is equally attractive in every detail. There is a grace in the way in which he holds the reins in one hand and the long wand in the other. The horse though reminding one of the animals the of that species, especially the white one in the centre in the Battle of St. Egidio by Paolo Uccello in the National Gallery, and though appearing to be defective in drawing to some extent in the so-called modern academic sense–one has to bear in mind that many pictures of great masters cannot stand this test so well, which is, to confess the truth, never a test of true greatness and worth–is yet a unique example of the skill in animal drawing in those far-off days, and testimony to this is borne by the magnificent elephant that is painted very close to it.
We will see the mentioned elephant in a subsequent post. Since the sketch is of low resolution, have retouched it for our better enjoyment. ( i wish i could get one of our more talented artists to paint it as per the original color scheme !!)
Sri C. Sivaramamurthy, does mention the resemblance to Battle of St. Egidio by Paolo Uccello in the National Gallery.
The color combinations do bear an uncanny resemblance. But to me, as i look back at Da Vinci’s sketches and this fresco, it slowly dawns on me - every detail - the roundness of the horses back, the detailing of the rear legs, the fullness of the chest, the majestic head, the neatly cropped and braided mane, the prancing of the front legs,the exactness of proportion, the inch perfect joints, the subtly hinted muscularity - though not as pronounced as Da vinci’s studies, the clarity of the hoofs…..leaves me speech less.
Take a bow, O anonymous chola painter, we salute you.
p.s Maybe, on the occasion of the 1000th anniversary of the Big temple, the authorities can bring out atleast a book on these paintings if not putting these up on their sites for the world to relish.