Om Namah Shivaya

Om Namah Shivaya

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Jun 18, 2016

Key to Sculptures of South India - by Heritage Vigilante Vijay Kumar

A four lecture series by  famous Heritage vigilante - Vijay Kumar, organised by Apparao Galleries

Over the years of my association with Apparao Galleries, specially with Chennai’s leading cultural activist, Sharan Apparao, I have learned a lot about South Indian heritage and culture. Outreach programs of Apparao Galleries connected me with stalwarts of various art and cultural streams of India. I have gained valuable insights with lecture series of Dr. Chithra Madhavan, Dr. Anita Ratnam etc., which otherwise would have taken a lifetime to understand. The lecture series on the Sculptures of South India was one such opportunity, in which Mr. Vijay Kumar - based out of Singapore, took us on an exquisite historical journey among beautiful stone and bronze sculptures.
1000 years old stolen Ardhanareeshwar
Sculpture from Tamil Nadu
Image Curtsy The Hindu

The unassuming Vijay Kumar, whose soft demeanor hides the passion and the perseverance with which he goes after the smugglers of our Art and Heritage artifacts, across the world. You will not even suspect that he is the passionate vigilante, who had worked in close co-ordination with ‘The Indiana Jones’ of Homeland Security Investigation - USA, Special Agent Brenton Easter to bring back home several artifacts along with the Prime Minister Modi on his return from USA recently.  Vijay Kumar, over the period of last 10 years, has been instrumental in creating great awareness of our sculptural heritage through his page on Face Book - 'Poetry In Stone' in addition to being the prime mover in repatriating the stolen sculptures to India, through his online vigilante platform - India PrideProject.

During the four lecture series, spread over two days (11-12th June, 2016), we learned the various methods employed by the smuggling gangs, the subterfuge and the connivance of various dealers and warehouses. But this post is not about that, as they are all widely reported across the mainstream newspapers etc. (You can find few here). I am going to focus about certain keys that Vijay gave us to understand the value of our heritage, the exquisite beauty of our ancient craftsmenship and share some of the keys to know the period of the sculptures we all see, as we go on our pilgrimages, spiritual outings and on meditation trips.

I have been on a lot of spiritual treks in Himalaya, South India, even in North Indian Buddhist circuit and whenever I come across the sculptures, Idols and deities in the dark enclaves of sanctum sanctorum, I always felt them to be enveloped in mystery, beyond an invisible boundary that separated us.  Not to be touched or explored with enquiring eyes, but they were out there, ensconced in devotion and spiritual energy, to be watched from a distance with reverence. I always wandered around the temple premise, keenly looking at the various sculptures dotting the place, trying to figure out what they are trying to tell me in their exquisite but mute postures. I always wonder about the history behind those beautifully carved eyes, or how the standing three-inflexion point pose came to be? Why there is a clear difference between two sculptures standing next to each other? And as the four lecture series came to an end, things begin to fall in place and some hidden insights were unlocked.
So here I am sharing some of the keys to understanding the South Indian Sculptures, I have had gathered from the session. Hope it will also help you to unravel an exquisite past as you walk around a Heritage site across South India.
A) Evolutionary style

Pallava Period sculpture is a free form work of art.
Early Chola sculptures were in a set style, that used to be replicated across the south Indian Peninsula.
Late Chola  period sculptured developed more intricate form of carving and casting. They were more Ornamentally decorated with intricate details and carving, with Karanda Mukuta, Ratha Patta, Kundla, Skand Mala etc.
Image curtsy The Indian Pride Project - Vijay Kumar

B) Attributes of Sculpture
As Vijay Kumar explained, in order to understand an idols identity and /or period it comes from, the first thing to do is to look at the various postures the sculpture displays. See what attributes it has, especially what are the things it carries in the various hands. All these attributes unravel the place, the period and the mythological background it comes from. It is very important to understand that the mythological stories play an important role in understanding and identifying a sculpture, as most of the time a simple panel will depict a full mythological story.

Some of the key attributes and signs to look for in a sculpture.

Image Curtsy The India Pride Project - Vijaya Kumar
a) A head crown is a sign of Gods
b) Matted Locks depicts Lord Shiva
c) If the Sacred Thread goes over elbow is most of the times indication for Pallava Sculpture
d) Usually a single anklet is sign of Kings
e) Deity’s hands are usually shown in Abhaya, Kartari, Simha, Karna, Sukhasana
Dhanur Hasta, Ardha Chandra Hasta forms.
e) Four hands separating at Elbow depicts early Pallava period while, if they are separating at shoulders depicts at Chola period sculptures.
f) Shiva has antelope in one hand.
g) Usually the in the Chola Period, the rings are shown worn in 2nd phalanx of fingers
g) Ajana Bahu i.e. long hands, reaching or crossing knees in sculptures usually a sign of King.
h) Hair curling at the back is often from late Chola period
i) A pot of fire in the hands of the deity was depicted up to 9th century, later it turned into fire without a pot.
j) Concept of triple flexion at the style of standing posture of idols.

C) Height, Eye length and Forehead size of the sculptures.
Image curtsy The India Pride Project - Vijay Kumar
Vijay suggested in the lecture that as the artisans and tools developed of their trade, their sensitivity and expertise also changed toward creating those exquisite sculptures.  Starting from bare stone structures, they moved to creating more artistic and detailed postures. He said that even creating a panel in type of 2 - dimensional structure, they were able to give 3-D feeling, as he gave an example of the feet being fully formed, shown in the panel from the back, unlike the ancient European stone sculptures, where the feet and the body were usually depicted straight and facing forward.

i) Classic Chola deity’s face is long  and thin. The crown is more conical and ornamentally decorated (1000 AD Bronze Idols.)
ii) While Chola period (1200 AD) sculptures have a more boyish face and have small but much more pronounced conical crown.

3) Tell Tale Signs
During the lecture series, I have a small list of some signs that will identify a sculpture with certain amount of surety.

i) Right chest having an inverted triangle, depicts Lakshmi on Vishnu Idols on early periods and a fully formed Lakshmi on the later period of bronze idols. While Shiva gave his half of the body to Parvati
ii) Human deity always have two hands apart from Purushotam Rama, incarnation of Vishnu as the perfect human being.
iii) Lord Shiva is never shown with folded hands as in praying.
iv) Any aspect of Shiva as Bhairava is depicted with fangs, while in rare places as Dakshinamurthy, Shiva has been depicted with fangs.
v) Agni is with three legs, 2 heads and 7 hands

4) How to know that a sculpture is an old idol
Vijay gave us a practical tool to identify authenticity of a sculpture, “if by some miracle the temple priest allows you to do, what I am going to tell you”. He said that the maximum bronzes tend to loose their cherubic charm over the years, so to identify an old sculpture, first wash your hand, pray and then if allowed feel the face of the idols, you will have soft feeling of the face. It is because, as over the centuries of care of the idol by the temple priest, brushing the idols with soft tamarind to anoint and decorate the idols, it gives that ‘soft feeling in the face’ effect.

At the end of the lecture, I realised that the reason Vijay is known in the Heritage circles as a fierce vigilante, is the fact that he has a deep-rooted pride for our ancient heritage and culture in his heart. He abhors the way these gangs are operating with impunity in India. So almost a decade back he set about what he can does best. He started talking about it in various seminar, exposing these people on his social media platforms and online communities, and educating people to know the value of safe guarding our ancient monuments and sculptures. He created and manages a great online community of vigilante’s like him, called “The India Pride Project”. Please do join if you are interested in the same.
Vijay and me at Apparao Galleries - Chennai
When I asked to take a picture along with him, he said that it is quite dangerous to have a picture with him as many ‘not so good’ people watch him all the time. Well this is my one small step to end ‘not so good’ people’s story. Hope you have enjoyed it.

ॐ नमः शिवाय
Om Namah Shivaya

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