Michelangelo’s David Vs Nellaiappar Karna – part 1

In the art world some names are uttered with a deep reverence – Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni is one of them – An artist par excellence who excelled in painting, sculpture and architecture. I was fortunate or rather serendipitously lucky to read more about the great man and his true love of carving marble in the book The Agony and Ecstasy . It had been a long and eventful Pandya Naadu tour for me and Arvind and as we parted – the hired taxi dropping him off at Nellai Railway station and me at the Nellai bus stand, giving me an hour and a half to kill and a bone jarring bus ride to Coimbatore. The Old book shop outside the railway station did not look promising, as it mostly had used school and college books ( and i had already had enough of them year back). He managed to take out couple of English Novels both of which has long lost their front covers, but the inside page was clear – The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo – by Irving Stone. I asked for the price and i think the owner was more than happy to get rid of it, if i had persisted he would have given it to me for free !

We had just come out of the famed Nellaiappar temple after about half a day of looking at the sculptures, which are still today quoted by many to be the most beautiful sculptural works – along with their sister works in Krishnapuram. As i got immersed in the book over the next couple of days, I grew to know the sculptor in Michelangelo, his single minded drive to carve marble, his thirst to be become number one – his trysts with Leonardo Da Vinci with more than its share of ‘ healthy’ competition. I read in rapt attention at how he took on an abandoned and already worked block of marble – the massive block of white marble had been quarried from the famed Quarry in Carrara , high in the Apuan Alps of Tuscany – specially for the great Donatello to be executed maybe via his pupil Agostino in 1464 CE. But the project was shelved with the demise of Donatello in 1466. Ten years later they tried to resurrect it with a contract to Rossellino but it never went forward. The block was possibly worked on and blocked out – maybe cut / drilled at the bottom to shape a foot. But then it lay in that state exposed to the elements for another 25 years – till 1501 CE ! Infact in 1500, an inventory of the cathedral workshops described the piece as “a certain figure of marble called David, badly blocked out and supine.”

The contract was re floated and against ( arguably) competition from Leonardo, Michelangelo won the commission. He breaks convention or rather the earlier version of David by Donatello and carves the now immortal David.

We are lucky that some of his rough sketches survive to this day and we can catch a glimpse of how the great artist tried to solve the problem of a tall block of marble.

The story was much popular then as well but it is clear that initially he went with the popular depiction of showing the slain head of Goliath underneath David’s feet. But then, I guess, he wanted his work to infused with more life. So he chose to depict David facing up to the Giant and caught him in a moment, where he contemplates taking on this task and breaking tradition from not portraying after the slaying.

For starters, the finished work stands all of 17 feet – if you understand how a rough block of marble is worked on, you can imagine the size of the original block.

That the great artist completed the task in just 3 years – 1501 to 1504 is itself mind boggling, but as we take time to study it in detail, it is truly astounding.

All David’s images in this posts are courtesy the internet, wikipedia – too many sources to individually thank but one big thanks to google.

To add to the complexity is the fact that this is a free standing sculpture and the sculptor would have to leave enough of the material at the feet as he reduced the weight from the top,else the weight of the load on top would crumble the legs. He must have blocked out the major limbs and steadily worked top down calculating the centre of gravity and weight distribution. And then the detailing and emotion, the sureness of form, the study of the human anatomy, limbs, nerves, bones, ribs, knee caps, ligaments and tendons moving over muscle and flesh.

Many scholars and experts have still argued about the expression on his face, but to me the entire frame is in suspended animation – his right hand holding the stone, the left hand with the sling, as he ponders his destiny, there seems to be a certain apprehension as he weighs his own skill and strength, a minor trepidation that he might not win and that is the very pinnacle of sculpting.

It slowly dawned on me that i had seen a similar scene that very day – of two rivals facing each other in battle. In the famed corridors of the Nellaiappar temple – is a rare sculpture of Karna – the eldest son of Kunti, elder to 5 Pandavas, but forced into the enemy camp by evil fate – yet the greatness in him, the Son of the Sun God, he who never sent back anyone from his door empty handed – even giving up his invincible body Armour and Ear rings in alms to Indra. He who fought for the sake of friendship against his own brothers and he who wanted to kill his own brother Arjuna.

Karna knew that the only weapon he had that could fell Arjuna was the Naga Astra – for which Arjuna had no counter, for it was the very personification of Awasena ( the snake – son of the Snake king, the only one who escaped the burning of the Khandava forest by Arjuna and Krishna and he was out to avenge his mother !)

The pillar sculpture is of massive proportions – with Karna sculpted to be about 12 feet, but is not free standing ofcourse – but carved out of hard granite with other sculptures in the round and the weight bearing load of the roof above supported by the pillar..

The period of this sculpture must be around the 16th -17th C CE – Nayakas – characterized by the slightly excessive ornamentation and distinctly over emphasized features. .

Here too the sculptor has chosen a moment in time in the action – Karna has drawn his bow with his left hand and is taking out the Naga Astra shown in its snake form. His facial features are shown as a confident man, he who knows that his opponent has no answer to his bolt, that the defining moment of the battle has come and he is going to be crowned as victor – sung in the exalted annals of history, as the one who slay Arjuna and the undisputed King of Archery in the world.

Now to consider, not as a comparison, but just as a study – the understanding of the human form by the Indian sculptor. The hard stone has been carved to depict the ease with which he is holding the bow, almost like a caress – you can make out the stone that has been removed between the finger holds and the beauty of the nails, you can even see a slight bulge of the muscles in the elbow !

He seems to taking a step back or moving his right leg to anchor his body, as he prepares to discharge the bolt. The resultant elevation of the knee caps and the bulging out of the ligaments on the side of the knee, are clearly seen.

He seems to be inhaling as he prepares to draw his bow, forcing his rib cage to expand thereby trusting up against the skin of the chest ! We will see the contrasting posture of Arjuna in the subsequent post.

Such a great work in stone. The intention of this post was to showcase the two works – not to show which is better or draw comparisons – but just that one is celebrated across the world while the other doesn’t even get a casual glance from the thousands who walk past.

We will see the contrasting posture of Arjuna who is going to face this bolt in part 2 of this post !

Treasures of Cham (vietnam) sculpture – part 1

Not many of us would have heard the name Champa / Cham. It is a glorious kingdom that prospered in modern day Vietnam in and around the centre of the country closer to present day Danang – with their origins as early as 7th C CE. The early history was predominantly Saivite and it is interesting that the cities were names Indrapura, Amaravati, Panduranga, Vijaya etc.

The Hindu art of the Cham is really interesting, but very rarely found outside of vietnam. Much of the treasures have not survived the pressures of conflict but what remains is a real treasure. Most of them are housed in the Museums in Saigon ( Hochiminh city) and Danang. The popular forms are a profusion of Linga, Mukalingas, Sayana ( sleeping) Vishnu and ofcourse Ganesha.

Today, we see the first part of this series on Cham sculptures, with a magnificient early Ganesha – dated to the early period of Cham art – 8th C CE.

For starters the time line of Cham artifacts are split in the following styles ( the names are the regions from where the art of the periods were found)

My Son E1 (7th to 8th century CE)
Dong Duong (9th to 10th century CE)
My Son A1 (10th century CE)
Khuong My (first half of 10th century CE)
Tra Kieu (second half of 10th century CE)
Chanh Lo (end of 10th century to mid-11th century CE )
Thap Mam (11th to 14th century CE)

The Ganesha is carved out of sandstone and the most characteristic features are the attributes. Sadly, only one of the hands has survived but he holds a very interesting object in it

For a second we were wondering what it might be, before we realised that it was our humble corn, complete with the peeled skins hanging down.

It was also interesting to note that he had a Naga ( snake) yagnopavitha – the sacred thread.

There are also remnants of ornamentation seen on the arm and also the simple crown. The detailing and size of the toes/ feet, the waist cloth etc are also beautiful. There seem to be some provision to insert the eyes ( precious stone?).

Thanks to master artist Mr. Srinivas of The Chroma Academy, we get a chance to recreate the sculpture.

The Cham sculpture however is distinct and different from the Ganesha’s we see ( contemporary period 8th C CE) in South India.

It would be interesting to study it more, and for those interested to pursue one of the very early Ganesha forms is the Terracota Ganesha escavated from veerapuram ( Kurnool district in AP) ( courtesy : Ganesh: studies of an Asian god
By Robert L. Brown) – dated to 2nd C BCE !!

There is lot more to come in this series and next up will be this very very interesting and unique panel

Photos Courtesy : Mr Wasanta Fernando
Vietnam History Museum Address:
Nguyen Binh Khiem Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.

An Unique ‘Naga’ Temple in Batam

Its not often we get a chance to visit offbeat sites and when our Tour guide Dhani mentioned about a Hindu temple in Batam, ‘ we ‘ pushed the shopping agenda to make way for the famed ” Naga” temple of Batam. Nestled amidst dense vegetation, the first glimpse was the typical Balinese Gopura. The structure immediately brought to mind Dr. Kudavoil Balasubramaniam’s book “Koyil Kalai Marabhu’ where he had illustrated these very structures – Hindu temple Gopura’s typically signify the ritual of passing through an entrance of fire, thereby purifying the soul – and that is what evolved to present day towering Gopuras – however, the vestigial links with the original concept are still seen strewn across Indonesia.

Just we passed through, we were pleasantly surprised to see a perfect modern temple to our side – Sri Tripurasundari temple, complete with a priest from Devakkottai. He did mention that he was still preparing for pooja and advised us to go visit the shrine farther away and comeback to see his !

A stiff 100 m walk and we were faced with a steep flight of steps ending in a magnificent entrance Gopura,

The time period/dates of this structure are still unclear but my joy knew no bounds when we were greeted by a pair of superb doorguardians and an equally superlative lintel of Garuda.

The door guardians seems to part of a larger arrangement while the Gopura and the lintel persay seemed more recent works.

As we entered the temple, we were greeted by a very ‘Indian’ Ganesha. You will understand why i mention so shortly.

The next view blew us away. Such a towering sight , considering that we had already climbed a decent height – but this structure was massive and being hidden from view from the outside the effect was doubly strong.

We were certainly not expecting to see such a structure. There were two cute ‘local’ ganesha’s different yet complete with the attributes – the axe, the flower, the mothahagams and suvadis !

What was more unique is the depiction of the various ‘snakes’ on the mount !

We couldn’t quite makeout the central theme and decided to go around to inspect more.

Seeing the massive curls of the snake coil around the structure, a realisation occurred that this could be the depiction of the churning of the Milk ocean for Amrit. The claws and the tail were a definite clincher. ( here is our Tour guide Mr Dhani – just to give you an idea of the scale !)

So when we moved to the front again they all began to fall in place.

The Bottom dragon face was infact that of a turtle – of Vishnu balancing the mount as turtle Kurma! and the churning rope being the snake Vasuki ( the dragon head on top)!

Usually the focus would be the Devas adn the Asuras holding the two sides and churning, but they have been done away with totally, instead focussing our attention entirely on the main act !

What made the entire complex so wonderful was the design, of presenting it on a small cliff with this artificial mount. The interesting part was the depiction of Garuda at the back and also a swan / bird above him.

The top has a Gold embossed dancing pose. It could be the classical Cambodian depiction of vishnu as seen in the famed Angkor panels

The Angkor panel for comparison

But without attributes it is very difficult to be sure and the locals call this a Sivan temple.

We finished the tour with a wonderful time at the temple nearby with the priest giving us a service straight from any temple in Tamil Nadu for his Aadhi Vinayagar and Tripurasundari

Dont miss the excellent services of Mr. Dhani Hariadi


Komplek TanjungPantun Blok P No. 4 Batam Island 29453, Indonesia.
Phone:+62 (778) 3306999
Fax: +62 (778) 456 797
Mobile Number: (+62) 81372788887