Many a times, the question is asked to me. As a self styled art appreciator who would i rank as the best - Pallava or Chola. My answer had always been Pallava Stone and Chola Bronzes. If we drill down further, Pallava stone sculptures of the Dharamaraja Ratha and Chola Bronzes towards the closing years of Sri Raja Raja Chola are maybe the finest examples of art that I have seen.
The upper tiers of the Dharamaraja Ratha in Mallai, hold in their midst some of the finest specimens of artistic expression, for not being confined to any cannons the unrestrained imagination of the Pallava sculptor ran riot, faultless and matchless in their execution, working within the cramped confines of its upper tiers, the whole structure being a monolith carved out of mother rock top down, with zero scope for error, what these immortal artists did to the hard granite is the very pinnacle of artistic brilliance. Their ability to conjure up a myriad combination of poses with simplistic grace, perfection in form, clarity in depiction and the stunning ability to bring out the underlying expression of flesh and blood into stone is remarkable.
Today, we take one of these jewels of Pallava craftsmanship to stand in competition. The Shiva as Rishabavahana. ( thanks to Ashok generously allowing use of his expert photography and editing skills) for the first time we can see the full form in all its splendor. The task is not easy as the space available in this is very less and you cannot step back to take the full view. Now, taking a photograph itself being so difficult, consider the difficulty quotient for the original sculptor who had to sculpt this beauty within the confined space.
Whats unique about this sculpture is of course his unique head dress - a head band and a turban like way in which his matted hair is tied up. We do not see this depiction anywhere else among other later Pallava creations and even any other contemporary example in Mallai. ( for eg take the Arjuna Ratha (
Breathing life into stone).
What is the main aspect of this sculpture is a flowing sinuous grace, the flesh and blood feel of the limbs and torso. The Tribanga coming to the forefront with the exaggerated swing of the waist and the tilt of the head ! all this in a relief panel mind you and that too in the upper tower of a monolithic stone ratha.
The classy ease with which shiva rests his hand on the bull and the stylish crossing of the legs…
To stand up against this, is by itself a herculean task, so we take the very best of Chola Bronzes, and as luck could have it, we were blessed to have a vip access view of this bronze ( currently in the Tanjore art gallery) at the Coimbatore Chemmozhi Maanadu as a sneak preview, a day before the official opening of the exhibition. Chola bronzes are cast by the lost wax process ( hence each bronze is unique, the mold cannot be reused as its broken to reveal the icon) and the very best examples are said to be so perfectly worked at the wax model stage by the craftsmen - that it was said that the real test was to be able to avoid using a chisel after casting. Though we have seen bronzes right from the Pallava times in South India, the craft of bronze casting reached its pinnacle during 1000 and 1014, the period of Sri Raja Raja Chola - as evidenced by the splendid foursome - the Kalayanasundara Panel which we saw earlier (I take your hand for eternity), the Rishabantaka which we are going to see now, the Bikshadana and the Veenadhara , both which we will see subsequently.
Fixing dates of bronzes is a tough and often confusing task, but this is no ordinary bronze, part of a hoard of bronzes found in tiruvengadu in the 1950, currently in the Tanjore Art gallery, it originally belonged to the Svetanarayaneshwara temple in Tiruvengadu. An inscription in the outer wall of the temple inscribed in the 26th year of reign of Sri Raja Raja ( 1011 CE) , one Kolakkavan ( AR 456 of 1918 - Ref to inscription mentioned in South Indian Shrines - Illustrated By P. V. Jagadisa Ayyar ) presented money and jewels to the image of Shiva Vrsabhavahana. ( interestingly a year later his consort was installed !)
The stylish grace of the bronze and its remarkable resemblance to the Pallava stone sculpture is astounding. Let me try and show you. click on below image and wait for the animation to load.
Compare the stylistic features. The Bull for the bronze has not been found yet. But taking off the two additional hands from the stone model, the chola artist, has slightly lengthened the position of the hands, dropping them further down and corrected the tirbanga ( lessened the S bend) including the tilt of the head.
Now, i know this is not fair competition, for 300 odd years before the Chola craftsmen made his mold in clay, the Pallava sculptor had envisioned the form and sculpted it in hard granite with zero scope for error, but then the Chola craftsmen has done his work exceedingly well as well. For to pull a relief panel and extend it to form a complete Idol is no simple task. Take a look at the styling aspects of the bronze. ( We were fortunate to capture the foremost authority on Bronzes in one of the following photos!!)
I know that some of you might ask as to how we can take it that the chola artist was influenced by the art in mallai. Well, we go back to inscriptional evidence. The earliest inscriptions of Sri Raja Raja Chola in Mallai are found in the nearby Shore temple and …..
I. INSCRIPTIONS AT MAMALLAPURAM
NO. 40. ON THE SOUTH BASE OF THE SHORE TEMPLE
This inscription is dated in the twenty-fifth year of Ko-Rajaraja-Rajakesarivarman, alias Rajara-deva….that would be 1010 CE. Exactly a year before this bronze was consecrated.