By Martin Gayford
Nov. 15 (Bloomberg) — The god Shiva, Hindus believe, both creates and destroys the cosmos in a dance of bliss. The idea that movement and rhythmic energy are fundamental to the universe is reminiscent of modern physics. It is also one of the keys to the exhibition, “Chola: Sacred Bronzes of Southern India,'' at the Royal Academy in London.
Sculpture is often the Cinderella of the visual arts, and non-Western art also tends to get unfairly little attention. Not this autumn. This is the third major sculpture show to open in London following Rodin and David Smith and it presents works of compelling beauty made under the reign of the Cholas.
That dynasty ruled an empire including Sri Lanka, the Maldives and parts of Indonesia as well as the Tamil region of southern India. It came to power in 850, and ruled for 400 years, making the Cholas contemporaries of William the Conqueror and the builders of Chartres Cathedral. The art created under Chola patronage, from a European perspective, is intriguingly familiar and also fascinatingly different.
This delightful show comprises 28 small-scale bronzes — figures of deities and saints — well lit and looking good in the Sackler Galleries, which can be bleak when hung with paintings.
Originally, the sculptures were made to be housed in temples and carried in religious processions. There's nothing surprising in that for someone used to the art of ancient Greece and Rome, or Mediterranean Europe today (in Holy Week, statues from Spanish churches are carried around in much the same fashion).
Shiva's Four Arms
There is a big difference. Western medieval statues stand, or at most in the Gothic period, sway. Shiva, as noted above, dances.
The 11th-century bronze which opens the display presents him as “Nataraja,'' four arms extended in differing positions, surrounded by an aureole of five-tipped flames representing the universe. Beneath his right foot he crushes Mushalagan, the incarnation of darkness and ignorance. This is a wonderful portrayal of motion. The sculpture almost seems to move as you look at it, rhythmically and gracefully.
There are two other points that leap to the eye. One is the freshness of these figures. Nothing lasts better or longer than bronze, except perhaps, as the Roman poet Horace pointed out, words. Because of the excellent technique of the artists and the material they used, many of these Chola bronzes look much less than 1,000 years old.
Hips and Shoulders
The two sculptures of “Shiva as Tripuravijaya'' (Victor of Three Cities) with his consort Uma, for example, date from around 950 and have suffered some damage. Both have had their eyes replaced, the originals having become worn as a result of ritual bathing and anointing over centuries. But the fine detail of their jeweled headdresses, necklaces, bracelets and — extremely scanty — drawers must look much as it did when it left the sculptor's workshop a century before the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
That description suggests the second startling aspect of some of these figures to a western eye. The two deities, Shiva and Uma, are represented as a physically perfect couple, their togetherness suggested by the way their postures interlink — her hips jut toward him, his shoulders undulate toward her.
They are almost naked and, there is no other word for it, sexy. Her body is a 10th-century anticipation of the Playboy ideal, with a wasp waist and breasts that make you wonder whether silicone enhancement was known to Chola civilization (“pressed so closely together,'' as a fifth-century poet put it, that “not even the fiber of a lotus could find space between them'').
True, the figure would be dressed and garlanded with flowers for processions. And as the co-curator Professor Vidya Dehejia writes, “the appreciation of a deity's bodily beauty was one of India's customary approaches to the divine.'' It was “the expression of love, devotion and adoration.'' True, too, that not all the gods are pin-ups. The tubby, elephant-headed Ganesha, in contrast, exudes ungainly amiability.
Still, you leave this show with the impression of a culture in which the spiritual and the sexual co-existed without tension. That is part of its charm.
“Chola: Sacred Bronzes of Southern India'' is at the Royal Academy, London, through Feb. 25, 2007.
(Martin Gayford is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this story: Martin Gayford at [email protected] .