One of the most beautiful figures in Indian sculpture is that of Lord Shiva dancing the Ananda Tandava or dance of joy, one leg raised high, his face very calm, as he destroys all life until new life is born once more. Looking at the divine dancer, we can almost hear the sound of the damru or small drum that he holds in one fist.

The bronze figure of this god is often seen in museums, in homes, even at crafts bazaars. So are crafted figures of Shiva and Parvati, Buddhist saints, or even Rama, Sita and Lakshman.

The Story of Indian Bronzes [Illustration by Anup Singh]
The Story of Indian Bronzes [Illustration by Anup Singh]

But is there a story behind Indian bronze sculptures? The earliest in India was probably the metal figure of the dancing girl found at Mohenjo-Daro. Remember it from the history textbooks?

As ages passed by, the history of Indian bronzes came to be linked with the south. The art of creating the bronzes flourished in the Southern kingdoms of the Pallavas of Kanchipuram, the Cholas of Thanjavur, the Pandyas of Madurai and the Vijayanagar rulers.

Though often referred to as ‘bronzes,’ these statues seldom use the alloy of copper and tin that makes up bronze because tin was not said to be pure enough for statues of the gods and goddesses. Usually, pure copper or brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) was used for metal casting. Later, the mix of the alloy changed to 20 parts of copper, to one of brass and one of white lead.

Who were the people who made these statues? And how did they do it?

In ancient India, the sthapati or metalworker was honoured by kings and commoners alike. His skills were often revered as a gift from the gods, even finding a mention in the Yajur Veda.

The sthapati usually cast his bronzes through the cire perdue, which is the French term for the ‘lost wax’ process. He first modelled a simple figure in wax, including details of the body. Next, a special clay mixture, including rice husks and cow dung, was applied over the wax in thicker and thicker layers. The clay form had openings at the top and the bottom.

What were the openings for? The clay model was heated, so that the wax drained out from the bottom. While this happened, liquid metal alloy was poured into the model from the top, filling each nook and cranny of it. Later, the clay coating was broken, and the metal cast taken out. At this stage, it’s still not quite perfect. So, the sthapati has to chisel it by hand with simple tools. Last of all, the figure is polished or burnished to give it the sheen that we look for in bronzes.

Strangely, the bronze-casters at centres like Swamimalai and Salem in Tamil Nadu today still use methods similar to those of the ancient Indian sthapatis, probably even as far back as Mohenjo-Daro.

Dr. R Nagaswami, a former Director of Archaeology in Tamil Nadu, shared some fascinating stories about ancient bronzes with us.

“A sthapati would first make a wax model, and take it out in a procession through the main street of his village or town,” Dr. Nagaswami reveals. “Only after the local people had approved of it could he cast it in bronze. He wouldn’t allow people to watch as he worked on figures of gods or goddesses, fearing it might bring him ill luck.”

“If the sthapati did a fine bronze, the king would reward him with land and money,” he adds. “The king made sure that the best sthapatis never lacked the money or the leisure to create beautiful works. The creators read poetry, watched dancers, and even listened to classical music. It was essential to know these in order to create superb bronzes.”

Do we know the names of these sthapatis? “We don’t have the name of even one bronze sculptor,” Dr. Nagaswami replies. “These idols were made for worship, so they didn’t write on them. But we do have the names of donors inscribed, even on a 915 A.D. image of Parvati. And yet, the name of the architect of the great temple at Thanjavur was found inscribed within it!”

Did the sthapati always work alone? “In ancient times, the craft was handed down from father to son or other relatives. It was usually kept within the family,” he tells us. “We don’t know if more than one person worked on a bronze. That’s why, even today, historians still don’t refer to each bronze caster by name. Instead, they just call them the Kumbakonam school or the Tanjore school.”

Each bronze holds within itself so many secrets and stories. Will we think about these nameless sthapatis the next time we come face to face with a beautiful Indian bronze figure?

India Feature Service

806 words | 8 minutes
Readability: Grade 6 (11-12 year old children)
Based on Flesch–Kincaid readability scores

Filed under: features
Tags: #india, #indians, #copper, #bronze, #statues, #alloy

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