Who is considered to be a great painter?

“He who paints waves, flames, smoke and streamers fluttering in the air, according to the movement of the wind, should be considered a great painter.”

Vishnudharmottara , Ch 43 V 28

I heard this for the first time in a fantastic evening lecture by Sri Sivaramakrishnan, who teaches art students in the Government Fine Arts College, Chennai. Thanks to a lucky invite from Sri Swaminathan. It was a wonderful evening, seeing sculpture from an artist’s perspective. But the real treat was towards the end when he went into explaining a few masterpieces of art from Ajanta.

I have heard many friends who visit Ajanta, lured by the timeless masterpieces on display, yet do they really appreciate what is on display ?

This is where experts come into play. To illustrate this, ( thanks to Sri Sivaramakrishnan for allowing me to post this ) – i take one of the murals and try to showcase it to portray its true beauty. I didnt take any notes, so all the positives are attributable to him but if there are any mistakes, please pardon my poor memory.

This is what majority of the thousands of visitors streaming through Ajanta see. Sadly this is what is left of these wonderful creations, yet there is still something left in it for us to take it as a subject of our study and justify the title of this post. Can’t believe, ok, take a look again at the mural, focusing to the right of the screen. You can vaguely make out a dark colored lady.

This is taken at the entrance to Cave 17, and the lady shown is the famous Black Apasara, a member of the troup that is descending to earth to worship the Buddha.

Lets zoom in and see her

Impressive – yes, but hang on to your comments!! Let me take on the task of communicating the greatness of this artwork from an art expert’s view.

Before that, let me take the help of artist friend Prasad to do a quick sketch to fully understand what is there in the painting ( this was a rough sketch by him )

There are certain key elements of this painting that we need to focus on

We take the first one. Chitrasutra section of Vishnudharmottara ( an ancient treatise on Painting) observes

Rekham prashansantyacharya
Varnadhyamitare janah

or simply ” the masters judge through the line”

For those of us who have read about Murals and frescos – or rather even tried our hand at simple brush painting, the simple yet splendid beauty of the above creation, executed with just a single smooth stroke of the brush held in the hands of the master artist , is mesmerizing.

Its not just the simple lines nor or they curved or straight lines – for there is subtle suggestion of a bulge of the eyeball and the roundness of the black circle.

Another verse..

Api laghu likhiteyam
drisyate purnamurith

meaning ” with the minimum of drawing almost the full form of the figure is represented”

Ok, i am not going to keep quoting these ancient texts, how does our master painter fare when we talk in contemporary terms ?

Most art classes would start with explaining perspectives – Linear perspective for example is projecting the three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional surface.

Now, lets look at the earrings of our subject

You can see that the left ear ring is actually just two parallel lines – with a hint of curve on the bottom. Now view it in conjunction with the right ear ring – where you see the expert rendition – the oval lines gives you the perspective of the circular ornament.

I come back to the initial quote with which i started the post. Movement. Well consider this, the Apsara is descending when suddenly her attention is caught by the person next to her. You can see her eyes looking to her left. Her face is depicted just turning, but the piece de resistance are these.

Do you notice how the artist has masterly captured the life in the painting, movement of the sway of the hanging jewelery. When she is suddenly stopped, the lag in the jewelery is expertly observed and highlighted.

Even in that you can notice contemporary techniques – take foreshortening for instance – a technique used in perspective to create the illusion of an object receding into the background. See how the beads of the necklace nearer to the center of the chest are larger than those that are going over the shoulder.

Thus, you know that this was rendered by a great painter albeit the unknown painter of Ajanta.

Tracking the Evolution of the Somaskanda – Part 4

Thirukazhukundram or Thirukazhugukundram, would bring back fond memories for most Chennaites. For, invariably it would be the place where schools would take you for excursions. Can’t blame them, the choices were not great – toss up between a 99% humidity, baking sun @ 42 deg, thrown in the beach sand – Mahabalipuram, a lecture on bovine mechanics – Madhavaram Dairy , a supposedly bird watch while you end up seeing just monkeys and a few specs of white (couldnt afford decent binocs and the pooled Rs 3 cheap plastic one was dismantled even before we paid up – not that it could magnify anyting anyway ) – ok the white specs were to be cranes travelling XXXX kilometers and so the teacher went on to justify the educational tour tag – what the heck, my backyard had more birds anyday than @ Vedanthangal, last but not least it was the umteen time we got to see the shaggy cross between a cow and a deer, a python so lazy that it didnt move for like 3 years, even the chameleons were bored seeing us, the crocs were thrown into what looked like a community toilet and there was absolutely no venom left in the poor cobra to milk @ Guindy Snake Park. The graduation to the next level would be Sengi fort.

They all had a commonality – all within a couple of hours drive, cheap ( aka no entry fees) and relatively deserted on weekdays – so kids wont get lost. Tirukalukundram scored a vital point as it had ( till recently) the added attraction of the avian visitors – two vultures who turned up at the appointed hour to partake in the brunch. ( its thiru Kazhugu – vulture – kundru – hill lock and Pakshi theertham – bird sacred water – literally translated !!!).

Off we went – neatly packed like sardines in the rickety old school bus and then paired with your best pal or if you are too mischievous or talkative with a girl ( ultimate punishment till we realised that it was not, but which time we were too old to sit in the same bench as them – so much for co education !!) and make the torturous climb up the steep and unforgiving stairs – they don’t seem too steep when you are young and a ` few kilos’ lighter.

So its no surprise that this most sacred of sacred places – maybe one of the very few temples which have been sung by Appar, Sambandhar and Sundarar, is not top of the list for many. Though its just a short detour 14 kms from Mahabalipuram, not many make the trip once they start wearing colored clothing of their choice ( out of school i mean – no more navy blue i swore till i realised that it was part of corporate dressing)

When Arvind suggested a quick drive down ECR to visit this site, i quickly wound up and parked near tiruvanmiyur temple tank ( free parking !!) and hit ECR. As we passed Mahabs, seeking directions – the road turned pleasantly good and green on either side. Just as we took the last diversion ( mean the last curve to avoid) we could spot the majestic hill come into view.

As our luck could have it or otherwise, we hadn’t done our background reading well and skipped the all important Pallava Rock cut cave – Orukal Mandabam ( one rock cave) and attempted to climb to ” the temple on top of the hill“. There is considerable debate on these two shrines and hence i used the italics. We will jump to that debate in a later post when we cover the rock cut cave.

Enough of the ramble ( must be the after effects of staying up all night and reading Chetan Bagat in one go ) I am going to depend very much on Sri K. R. Srinivasan’s Cave Temples of the Pallavas henceforth, and attempt to post on the topic of the post.

After a steady ( meaning stopping every five steps and almost coming close to having a heart attack twice) – we reach the summit blaming it on the heavy lunch…we were disappointed by a a very small stone structure. All this trekking for this !!! It was some auspicious day and looked like the whole village had turned up in all their finery to have darshan of the lord – vedagirirswarar. We tried our best acrobatic moves, attempted to outdo the leaning tower and managed to fit our heads inbetween the nandhi’s ears while our torso was a full 4 feet away – to just get a peak of the moolavar. Just as we came around,we noticed that the surrounding corridor had deep clefts – where we could see the base rock and in it – pay dirt. Atlast some Pallava sculpture – relief panels at that and SOMASKANDA !!

We were all eager to check what was its styling. Classic Pallava relaxed styling despite all the wearing of the stone – you can always spot a Pallava art work. Its got a certain laid back styling and freedom in it – and a poetry that runs through it. Next question – Pre Rajasimha or post Rajasimha

Just then, we heard some commotion, a road side hero – self professed custodian of the hindu temple arrived, showering the choicest of abuses on us and accusing us of not knowing Hindu culture ( maybe it was our bermudas and camera bags) – despite our best attempts to educate the romeo that we were not taking the Garba Graha nor were these panels under worship – he was more inclined to show of his new found role to his fellow tribesmen. Pretty soon we had a whole village assembly around us with all sorts of mustached elders passing judgments. not withstanding that we had paid a hefty camera fee and there was no photography board !! It was plain ridiculous, stupid, atrocious….and if not for the fact that we were inside a temple precincts, would have asked them to just … off. All my focus was on the reminder of the two panels – one was a very wonderful Shiva seated stylistically on rishaba – now you know what i mean by classic pallava styling.

I did shoot it but then it was close to delirium and we had to give up the last one.

Anyway, surprisingly the somaskanda capture, despite the poor light and emergency shot, is good enough to attempt a detailed study

Brahma and Vishnu are inside the panel

Shiva is in his usual pose, Parvathi /Umai – well will let you decide

A snug baby skanda with his characteristic head dress.

Surely a post Rajasimha panel. The throne is pretty standard, but the vessel here is quite different from what we have seen in other such panels – its not the standard vase but more like a high bowl. Another interesting variation!!

So,now is the tricky problem. Obviously, since the temple was sung by the trio – they are dated to Mahendra’s period – 630 AD around. But Rajasimha was three generations later, so how do we explain the presence of a stylistically later dated panel in an older temple – quite simple – the temple on the hill was existing prior to this panel being sculpted. The confusion arises since the lower cave ( which we will see subsequently) has not been sung – none of the caves of Mahendra have been sung upon, while this temple on the hill has been specifically sung. So the conclusion ( book ref given earlier) is that there must have been some sort of temple structure that existed earlier – then later pallava – Rajasimha or post him did some renovation and created the current structure by standing 3 stone slab -megalithic style shrine – on which these ( hopefully i can get you the third panel via friends shortly).

More on this interesting theory with inscriptional support which lends a new angle – when we see the Pallava cave in the base of the hill shortly.

Its shiva not Varahi – feeding the piglets

An interesting discussion in Agathiar forum by Dr Jaybee set me up on this post. Thanks to his expert guidance we could understand this much misunderstood sculpture. He had mentioned about this sculpture of Shiva feeding piglets – an interesting episode from the 64 acts of Shiva, which was (is) wrongly depicted as Varahi ( one of the seven mothers in the saptha matrikas). So we had our antennas out for this sculpture in Madurai and Tirupparankundram. But we got a chance glimse of this episode,couple of days before we reached Madurai and tiruparankundram, n a relief panel in Chidambaram just as completed our darshan there.

The interesting part of this sculpture is the line of praying pigs to the left of the panel ( your right as you view it). We will see this as the post progresses.

Ok, the puranam aka story first.

There was once a farmer named Sugalan in a small village called Athimanimaadamuthoor near Madurai. He and his good natured wife were pious and led a astute life. In sharp contrast were their 12 sons. They did all sorts of irresponsible and bad stuff including neglecting their farming duties, teaming up with the hunters in the forest and hunting for sport. During the pursuit of one such hunting expedition, they came across a shrub in which a ascetic was doing penance. They disturbed him for fun, pelting him with stones and hitting him with their arrows. Enraged the ascetic cursed them to born as piglets and to loose their parents at a young age and lead a miserable life. Realising their folly, the misguided youth fell at the ascetic’s feet and begged for his forgiveness and a way out of their curse. Seeing them repenting, the ascetic relented and told them that Lord Shiva himself will redeem them from their curse.

In due course, they were born as piglets and the Pandyan king who had ventured into the forest felled their parents. The piglets were left at the mercy of the elements and devoid of even nursing at their mother’s breasts. Taking pity on them, the loving shiva in his infinite mercy, himself took the form of a pig, sprouted breasts and nursed them and redeemed them from their curse. .

So, armed with the knowledge, we set on our search to find this pillar. It was not inside the Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple precincts ( remember this was after our sojourn with the Bronze gallery) – when we were directed to the Pudhu Mandabam. We were sufficiently warned that it was taken over by commercial establishments and spotting anything lest alone searching for a sculpture would be impossible, better to return early in the morning and request the watchman to open up !! But we stood our ground and went for a quick run, scouting for anything that resembled the legend. As luck could have it, we spotted it at exactly the opposite end of the Pudhu (new) mandabam. A few requests for the friendly shop keeper to resettle his wares and we could take our shots. ( we did return the next day for some more of the bottom panels )

Is it Shiva or Varahi?

Well its definitely shiva for you can clearly see the Axe blade being held in his right hand, the left hand has unfortunately broken off.

But some interesting panels in the foot of the pillar tell the full story

The hunter felling the mother pig.

There were piglets allover, clamoring to be fed. Its the same episode for sure

The clincher – our line of grown ups ( pardon the angle – the steel chairs didn’t make life easier for us!)

Armed with this knowledge, we headed to tiruparankundram and were pleasantly surprised to see an exact replica ( ok, some important differences at the base) – but the basic composition was the same, but sadly named as Vaarahi and anointed with turmeric allover !!!

Another angle showing the same styling of the sculpture as the one from Madurai

Including the line of impatient piglets

Again , is he Shiva? Can you spot his attributes.

I did mention a difference, didn’t I, the hunter is shown here shooting down the mother pig from the side of the panel and the carcass is shown inside the main sculpture.

By the way, did you notice the line of grown ups just coming into frame in the bottom of the last picture….a common factor in all three !!

Whats more interesting is a paired pillar to this – which contains an even more interesting aka rare depiction of Shiva from the Thiruvilaiyaadal Puranam. We shall see that is a subsequent post. But with all this clinching evidence, hopefully someone will restore the rightful name for this sculpture in Thiruparankundram.

A mistake at the seat of knowledge – time to set it right

This December, our trip took us to a lot of wonderful sites and was an eye opener in many ways – we learnt lot of things and more importantly realised how little we know!!. There are a lot of positive things to write about, but there was one instance which was an eye sore. Hence, thought will write about it first.

It is just a mistake but a mistake which finds in place in a site which is meters away from the greatest edifice to the regions art, literature and culture – Madurai. As one of the oldest sites and a seat of learning, Madurai is synonymous with Sangams and the lore of Shiva’s work itself being evaluated in its famed assembly. Thus this error, which is being witnessed by so many visitors is bound to be looked at as an himalayan blunder.

To set things in perspective, its was a long day for us, when we landed in Madurai ( me ,Arvind, my wife Priya and son Prithvi ) – we left early noon to be in time for the temple opening post lunch break and clicked away at the magnificent gopurams of Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple. Then we ventured inside, thanks to a helpful local guide and 4 hours flew inbetween. With our backs and arms aching, sore from trying to jostle with the hundreds of enthusiasts to capture the right view in the fading light ( somehow, people do know how to jump into frame just as you waited for 5 min for the crowd to move on …and just as you press the button, someone jumps into frame and you get their bald frame !!)

It was close to 7 pm, and we had almost packed up our bags, promising to return the next day morning for another encounter with the gopurams ( east side….for better sunlight) – when i remembered that we had not got the pillar sculptures from the mandabam. The guide brushed us off saying there are only 4 or 5 there and can be skipped. But the presence of the ticket counter and a cop at the gate, got our curiosity growing and we went in. The pillars were ok, not great, but my gaze fell on a dimly or rather unlit dusty area of the hall. There were curious pedestals with smoky glass boxes. Was in for a shock when i went to investigate. Amazing bronzes, lined on both sides – over 50 of them. We were just then warned that we had less than 20 min before they shut down the place ( by 8 pm)….What a pity. The lighting was so poor and the glass was dusty – no way to get even decent quality snaps. Yet, the very first row of exhibits was disappointing.

Take a look yourself.

The first image ( identified as # 70 – Nirthana Sambandan)

I hope you have read the post on identification of Sambandar bronze.

Lets zoom in to see the clear mark

Such a clear mark, left behind by the sculptor – the Srivatsam, to show its Narthana Krishna – yet the bronze has been identified as Sambandar and that too in a museum housed inside the Meenakshi Temple !! What a pity.

Even trained guides arent aware of such a treasure inside this beautiful temple. Hopefully, someone can help reach this to authorities and correct this mistake.

Rising up majestically from ruins – thanking all patrons

Happy new year to all our readers and its great to be back with all of you after a three week break. We visited some fantastic sites and took some amazing photgraphs, met wonderful people. I start this post with a tribute to all the patrons who made what you see below happen.

Most of you would have followed the post below, its was in June 2008 that REACH foundation took on the challenge of this renovation effort.

A thousand year struggle to survive

So, we made it our first stop to look at the progress – with great apprehension, since most renovation efforts ( ofcourse attempted by novices) end up making the structures look like pay and use toilets with their ceramic tiling, blue paint on sculptures etc etc. But this was a personal challege, a team led by experts, wanting to prove that restoration can still be done retaining the original flair. So, did we succeed. I let you be the judge.


Hang on, there are more to come.


The lime and mortar sculptures have been painstakingly renovated as well.


Including minor details


Really wonderful and the color scheme ( following UNESCO’s world heritage monument schemes of Tanjore, Darasuram, Gkc etc) is pleasing.


Even the Bootha rekai has been meticulously restored.


What i loved about this effort, was its attention to detail and aesthetic grace.


This ought to be how it should be done and must serve as an example for future conservations efforts.


As we started to leave, the skies darkened – and then it poured, but not before giving us a nice window to finish filming. They say its an auspicious sign – rain – for the Kailasantha temple in Utiramerur to stand erect in its resurrected beauty – to see another thousand years in all its splendor.

There is definitely a followup post to this to discuss an important sculptural find during the restoration work, but before that we thank all our kind hearted patrons who donated generously to this effort. We hope the success of this effort will spur you and inturn us to take on greater challenges.

Photos courtesy: Mr Arvind and Myself with equipment from Mr Dinesh.S

( A personal loss for me happened on 23rd Dec – i lost a dear friend – He had supported the trip by loaning all his photographic equipment including expensive lenses – I dedicate this series to Mr. Dinesh Sundaresan, who with this last chat session – a testament to his greatness, left us in a tragic road accident on 23rd Dec 2009, just 36 years of age, half of which he had spent in my friendship.

me: maams oru favor da
6:31 PM dynesh: tell me
me: i am doing a south trip from 13th to 24th
dynesh: big trip
me: can i borrow ur camera, if you can spare. going basically for some serious sculpture places
dynesh: no machan i will only if you take all lenses and tripod too !!!

Rest in peace my dearest friend. )