Michelangelo’s David Vs Nellaiappar Arjuna – part 2

In part 1, we compared David poised to strike with the sculpture of Karna in Nellaiappar temple. We continue the narration today by viewing the scene from the view of Protagonist of the battle – the mighty Arjuna ( my personal preferences are with Karna though) – to recap we are in day 16 of the great battle @ Kurukshetra. Previously having sat out the great battle for 10 days, Karna being kept out by the guile of the great Bhishmar , has set his eyes to slay Arjuna – but from day 11 to 16 – the battle flows with the Pandavas gaining the upper hand thanks mostly to the Krishna. Krishna is said to have praised Karna in front of Arjuna thus

“Do not. O mighty-armed one, disregard Karna, that ornament of battle! Karna is possessed of might. He is proud and accomplished in weapons. He is a Maharatha. He is accomplished (in the ways of battle) and conversant with all modes of warfare. He is also well-acquainted with all that suits place and time. What need is there of saying much? Hear in brief, O son of Pandu! I regard the mighty car-warrior Karna as thy equal, or perhaps, thy superior! With the greatest care and resolution shouldn’t thou slay him in great battle. In energy he is equal to Agni. As regards speed, he is equal to the impetuosity of the wind. In wrath, he resembles the Destroyer himself. Endued with might, he resembles a lion in the formation of his body. He is eight rathis in stature. His arms are large. His chest is broad. He is invincible. He is sensitive. He is a hero. He is, again, the foremost of heroes. He is exceedingly handsome. Possessed of every accomplishment of a warrior, he is a dispeller of the fears of friends.”

Lets us see the classic faceoff between the two.

Now, Arjuna knows that the Nagastra has been taken up by Karna, let us see his expression ( not to mention his long beard and it seems to be tied up in a knot at the end as well)

The overall poise is that of someone who knows that he has no answer to the bolt that is going to be hurled at him, his left leg is slightly back and his body tilted a bit – on the back foot.

You can compare the torso of the two, and you can see that Arjuna’s chest is relaxed.

Compare it to the torso of Karna, with its bulging chest and exposed ribs

Yet, Arjuna has an arrow out of his quiver in his hand. Maybe, he is confident that Krishna would find a way to save him !

The portrayal is useful to compare against David.

Ofcourse, the detailing of the knee caps of the ligament in hard granite of Arjuna is outstanding

For such a colossal work in stone, the way he holds the arrow shaft , the ribs of the feather on the shaft, the posture of the fingers and the detailing of the nails !

Definitely time stands still as the master sculptor sculpted his scene in stone.

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 !

If ever there was super pillar contest

Its the season for contest and ….Got talent shows. These shows are filled with lots of talent and lots more glitz where the participants are pitched against one another and in a sequence of exponentially increasing odds they perform mind blowing feats to arrive at the prized price. Today we are going to see a similar contest but among sculptors – in stone. The stage is the famed Nellaiappar Temple of Tirunelveli. For the record, Me and Arvind went in without much expectations hoping to be outside in time for the famed Iruttukadai shop to open !

The raised platform with a distinctly post 15th C doorguardians ( I know I know – the nucleus of the temple is dated to 7th C CE..but) didn’t evoke much of a response, initially at least.

For as we went around to the steps, the sight blew us away.

The entire block is carved out of a monolithic stone, with the doorguardian in front and an extremely complex array of pillars of differing thickness in the back, and that was not all. Row after row of astounding pillars lined up as if for inspection in a guard of honor.

To top it, these were the famed musical pillars !! each producing a distinct note ( that they have survived so long with every visitor trying to show their musical prowess on them itself is worth an applause ) , but the sheer labour that went into these stumped us.

When we say massive, we mean it. Not convinced, take a look.

and by massive, it doesn’t just mean gargantuan size alone. Take a look at the art on display !

This is not some trick sculpting, if you do not believe that its all carved out of a single block of stone. Take another look. The grain of the stone runs right through the different pillars.

There were a few more pillar clusters which seemed a bit easier on the chest and breathing ( with all the wows and ooh and aahs)


But, as in an expert rendition of carnatic music, we did not realise that the sculptor had lulled us into a false sense of mediocrity, to think that this was ordinary compared to the rest – but then, he had one or two more tricks to show us.

Watch closely towards the base. do you spot it?

Yes, when he was busy reducing the rock, he had left enough material to carve a ball inside the pillar, so designed that it cannot roll out ( also means it was not introduced later !!)

Well, i said a trick or two !! test your spotting skills

Did you spot it?

Yes, hewing a composite multiple fluted pillar that would emanate different musical notes while shaping a solid stone ball was not challenging enough for him – he sculpted a stone squirrel as well on the inside of one of the pillars.