April 9, 1931.
“Close upon the discovery of the Pallava paintings in the Kailasanathaswami Temple at Conjeevaram by the French savant, the indefatigable Prof. Jouveau Dubreuil it has been my great good fortune to bring to light the hitherto unknown frescoes of the Imperial Chola period, in the Brihadeswaraswami Temple, popularly known as ‘the Big Temple of Tanjore.’
“It was almost a year since I visited that noble fane [temple] one evening, in the company of my friend Mr.T.V.Umamaheshwaram Pillai, when in the dim religious light of a small oil lamp I felt, as it were, the existence of some kind of paintings on the walls on either side of a dark narrow circumambulatory passage around the sanctum sanctorum.
“But it was only yesterday I found it convenient to examine the place more thoroughly with the help of a ‘Baby Petromax’ whose bright light revealed paintings indeed but paintings of an undoubtedly very late and degenerate age, whose linear contortions and chromatic extravagances shattered in a moment all my wonderful dreams of discovering there the best and the only example of the art of Chola mural paintings.
“Still I chose a part of the western wall for close inspection and found the painted plastering there cracked all over and threatening to fall down. A gentle touch and the whole mass crumbled down, exposing underneath a fine series of frescoes palpitating with the life of other days.”
S.K. Govindaswami in The Hindu, April 11, 1931
Its taken 80 years for the above effort to reach its end, I would be wrong to say it as the end, for this is indeed a new Dawn. The famed Chola Frescos, hitherto seen only by a privileged few, with lesser mortals having to put up with the OOhs and AAhs of scholars and seeing low resolution faded prints in newspapers and magazines, have been given a new life. Thanks to the efforts by the TN Government, The Tamil University Tanjore, Mr Rajendran, Mr Thyagarajan , Mr Rajavelu, Mr. Chandru - we get to see them in new light.
There has been lot of talk of such efforts earlier, and when Sri Badri of Kizhakku Pathippagam showed a sneak preview of the book on facebook, my pulse raced in anticipation, but somewhere there was a bit of dread - would the book do justice to the paintings, will the quality of photographs compare with international publications, would the presentation falter, would the quality of paper be compromised ( more so since the price was just Rs 500). Not wanting to take chance, I rushed through two sources to order the book. And 3 weeks ago, the books reached me, thanks to Sri Raman. Normally, i would finish a book of this size in a day or two, but then this was no ordinary work. It took me weeks to finish studying a page - Every inch of the Frescoes have been faithfully captured on Camera and not stopping with that - Artist Sri Chandru has faithfully drawn every line and curve as line drawings. I showed the book to Oviyar Sri Maniam Selvan and he was mighty pleased and impressed as well and showed me a few of his father’s ( Sri Maniam’s sketches of the frescoes as well !! - felt blessed)
Let me explain what i mean, by showing you a sneak peak of the books contents - the famed Dhaksinamurthy panel.
( have to use low resolution so it doesn’t really do justice to the work, but don’t want to infringe on the book !!)
Now, comes the book specialty - the line drawings
There is so much to study in these Frescos and I am sure this book would spawn many Phd’s. For eg, take just one part of the panel, towards the top left hand side.
Notice the highlighted part - its a fantastic Asta Buja ( eight armed) Bairvar form.
The detailing on the paintings is stunning. Take a look
But the Bairavar looked very familiar, so immediately set about looking into my database. The first one that came up, was this Kstera Balar ( special Bairava from without the Dog mount - favorite of Sri Raja Raja’s queen Lokamadevi!) who is currently stationed just outside the entrance of the Big temple entrance.
Though the style matched, the placement of the Trishool - on the right hand compared to the one in the painting - where its holstered ( forgive the pun) to the left waist - showed this was not a match.
Next on the scanner, was this fantastic bronze from the Tanjore Art Gallery. ( imaged courtesy Sri Raman and my cousin Sri Prasanna Ganesan)
The gallery board read 11th C CE, Tirvengadu
I went back to my books and found the reference in Bronzes of South India - P.R. Srinivasan (F.E. 1963, L.R. 1994 - Price Rs. 386), to dig out what they thought of the bronze.
In respect of workmanship, this is in the same style as the bronzes of the Rishabantaka.
But its iconography has necessitated the introduction of some new details not met with in any of the figures previously examined.
The eight armed Bhairava is another interesting bronze of this period, the like of which has not been met with. It stands erect, ie, in sama Bhanga posture. The other details peculiar to this figure are the following:
The braided locks of hair are arranged in the forms of heart and it serves the purpose of a Bha manadala ( halo) too. a knob like projection is seen on the head. On one side is seen a serpent and on the other the crescent and the Datura flower. ( there are two serpents and the crescent and flower are on opposite sides !)
Six tassels are seen, three on each side of the Jata - mandala. The fillet with the gem consists of flower designs. Patra kundalas are seen in both the ears. The raudra or terrific aspect associated with this icon, is attempted to be depicted by means of the knitting of the eye brows, wide open eyes and the small canine teeth. But as was customary with ancient stapathis to introduce benign qualities in the representation of terrific themes, here too the stapathi has depicted the details in the same fashion which goes to make the bronze pleasant looking rather than terrible looking. Even the knitting of the eye brows, in the context of features expressive of joy, seems to add charm to the expression rather than striking terror.
The necklaces and the pendant ornament on the right shoulder are of the same type as those of the above figures ( Rishabantaka post) and thus affords a proof of its grouping with them. The Yagnopavita is made of two strands, twisted like a rope. Besides, along mala - a string made up of small globules is seen. Perhaps they represent severed heads, in which case thus becomes a Munda - Mala.
Arms are displayed in fan-wise series on either side, and the manner of their attachment to one another is beautiful. The armlets are actual naga-valayas and in no other bronzes armlets of this kind are seen - this is where this bronze started differentiating with the one in the Fresco. Its does not have this feature
Except, the three hands, namely the upper most right hand, the corresponding left hand and the lowermost left hand which hold respectively, a damaru, a bell and a bowl, the rest are in kataka poses. The series of arms seen one below the other in the depth of each side is impressive.
No tassels are present in the Udara bandha. This figure shows two serpents with their bodies twisted and wound round the waist. Further their heads are converted into decorative pieces adorning the thighs. The manner of showing them hanging on the thighs is superb.
Now, comes the definitive clue. There are two snakes in the bronze, but only one in the painting ! So this is not the bronze shown in the painting !
Now, you will understand, how important documenting our heritage is and Kudos to the team behind this spectacular book. Cannot call it a collector’s item, for its something that has to be studied and taught in art schools and subject of many Phd’s.