Magic of Bronze

Celebrating an ancient medium of art with objects of devotion, utility and beauty from South India (1100 - 1999 A.D)

By Salar Jung Museum

Bronze statue of the Buddha (600/799)British Museum

Early bronzes of India

Bronze is an alloy which is obtained from the mixing of metals Copper and Tin. Exquisite and beauteous figures have been made in this medium. The earliest bronze sculpture in India perhaps dates back to 2500 BC, the Dancing Girl  from Mohenjodaro. The figure is in an interesting tubular form. From the Kushan period, images of Jain Tirthankaras have been found at Chausa, Bihar, of the 2nd century. Gupta and post Gupta era bronzes include  Standing Buddha images with right hand in abhaya mudra or gesture of fearlessness, which were cast in North India, during the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries. Vakataka dynasty bronze images of the Buddha from Phophnar, Maharashtra, are from the 3rd century and resemble Amravati art of Andhra Pradesh.

Standing Buddha Standing Buddha (ca.12th/13th century C.E.)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Later period bronzes

The bronze images of Buddhist deities as well as Hindu gods and goddesses in Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir area were cast during the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries, and are totally different from other regions. During the rule of the Pala dynasty in Bihar and Bengal, at Buddhist centres like Nalanda, a school of bronze-casting was born around the ninth century. In the South, iconic bronzes were produced from 8th to 16th century in Tamil regions.

Parvati (c. 11th century) by IndianThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Legacy of South Indian Bronzes

The legacy of the dynasties that once ruled medieval South India is still alive through their monumental temples and iconic metal images that they created. From the 8th to 16th century, these images were made, mainly in the Tamil regions of Thanjavur and Tiruchchirapalli. The art of fashioning bronze images is still practised in South India, particularly in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu.

Seal of the Chola King Rajendra I (reigned 1012-1044) (1012-1044) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Royal patronage

The early historic and medieval sculptures from South India, including that of Nataraja, Buddha, Parvati, Rama and Jaina images made of bronze,  copper, brass, and gilt copper, were mostly produced under the patronage of Pallava, Chola, Vijayanagara, Pandya and the Chalukya kings. Adding zinc, gold and silver to bronze was practised to make it a panchaloha of five metals.The bronze casting technique and the making of bronze images flourished and reached a zenith in South India. The image here is a bronze seal of ruler Rajendra Chola (r.1012-1044 A.D) .

Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi as the Goddess Parvati (10th century)Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Glory under Pallavas and Cholas

Starting with the late Pallava period, during 8th and 9th centuries, the bronze sculpture reached heights of glory during 10th to the 12th century under the Cholas in Tamil Nadu. During the tenth century, the royal patron was the widowed Chola queen; Sembiyan Maha Devi. Exquisite figures with a high degree of craftsmanship was the hallmark of the artform. 

The image here is of the queen Sembiyan as Parvati.

Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja) (10th/11th century) by India, Tamil NaduThe Art Institute of Chicago

The Lord of Dance

The image of Nataraja, a form of Shiva as the cosmic dancer, the Lord of Dance, is a masterpiece of the Chola bronze sculpture and is considered one of the greatest  contributions of the Cholas to Indian art.  It combines in a single image Shiva's roles as creator, preserver, and destroyer of the universe and conveys the Indian concept of the never-ending cycle of time.  There are many images of Nataraja in different dance poses. During the Chola period, in Thanjavur, previously the Tanjore region of Tamil Nadu, a wide range of Shiva iconography had evolved. The magnificence of its symbolism and artistic excellence has amazed the world of art. Graceful figurines of Parvati have been sculpted as well, standing in ‘S’ shaped tribhanga  posture which consists of three bends in the body; at the neck, waist and knee. 

Shiva and Uma (1100)Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Bronze casting process

A bronze figure is made through the lost-wax process, an ancient process. The same holds for brass (alloy of copper and zinc) as well. Technically it is known as Cire Perdure. The Shilpa Shastras call it the Madhu Uchchishtta Vidhana. The process starts with mixing of beeswax and kungilium with a little oil. It is kneaded well and from it, the desired figure is made. Fine details are sculpted into it. This forms  the wax model in original. The figure is made according to instructions in the Shilpa Shastras. The dimensions, proportions,  posture,  ornaments, the mudras, meaning  gesture, and the bhavas, here meaning expression, are followed very strictly.

Tools of a metal craftsman - pair of punches (Late Bronze Age, 1000–800 BCE) by UnknownNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

A perfect finish

A paste  is made with clay from a termite-hill and the entire figure is coated with it over and over again until the mould is of a necessary thickness. The whole thing is then dried. After that the clay-mould with the wax-mould is baked over an oven with cow-dung cakes. The wax-model melts and flows out. Now the clay-mould is empty and ready. Bronze is melted and poured into this mould. When the metal has hardened and cooled, the mould is removed by breaking it off. The bronze figure is thus derived. After cleaning, the finer details are added and the image polished to perfection. Bronze has also been casted hollow and given a gilded finish or repoussed. .

Watch the process of Bronze casting process in the video!

Painting gallery at Dewan DeodiSalar Jung Museum

Bronzes at Salar Jung Museum

The museum has a good collection of bronzes from all parts of India and from different periods of history. There are bronzes from South India; Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Mysore, also Central India, Bengal, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Burma (now Myanmar) and Nepal.  However images from South India are more in number and dominate the collection.  There are Natarajas and figures of other Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina deities. Some tribal and decorative objects are also part of the collection.

Let us take a look at these beautiful bronze creations and also understand the scope and canvas of South Indian bronzes and metalwork.

Nataraja (1501/1599)Salar Jung Museum

Nataraja

Figure of Nataraja, King or Lord of Dance, a form of Shiva, with an ornate arch, with the circle of flames or prabhavali and emblems in his hands. This image symbolises Lord Shiva's roles as creator, preserver, and destroyer of the universe. This exquisite masterpiece is from South India, dated to the 16th century.

Prabhavali - A circle of flames around Nataraja

Apasmara purusha, the dwarf demon who signifies spiritual  ignorance, that which leads mankind astray, is under the feet of the Lord of Dance.

Agni  or flame on back left hand, that which can destroy the whole universe. 

Damaru or drum in back right hand, which makes the first cosmic sound during the process of creation. The front right hand in abhaya mudra or gesture of fearlessness.

Somaskanda murthy (1501/1599)Salar Jung Museum

Somaskanda

The Somaskanda group with Lord Shiva, Kumaraswamy, the boy Skanda and Parvati. Shiva and Parvati are seated and Skanda is standing in between. Shiva is with four hands. Figures seated shown on pedestal, a Vijayanagara bronze, dated to the 16th century.

Figure of Parvati (1200/1299)Salar Jung Museum

Figure of Parvati

Graceful figure of Goddess Parvati standing on a pedestal in tribhanga posture, with three bends forming an 'S'. Patterns of flowers on the draperies. The head is crowned and adorned with a crescent and circular rings, from Vijayanagara, dated to the 13th century.

Seated Shiva and Parvathi (1400/1499)Salar Jung Museum

Seated Lord Shiva and Parvati

Seated Lord Shiva and Parvati, Lord Shiva's one hand is in varada-hasta posture,  holds parasu or axe, mriga or antelope in back hands, a bronze from Vijayanagara, dated to the 15th century.

Figure of Lord Brahma (1700/1799)Salar Jung Museum

Figure of Lord Brahma

A standing figure of Lord Brahma, four-headed and four-armed. The right top hand holds a lotus bud, from South India, dated to the 18th century.

Vishnu in Sambhanga posture (1100/1199)Salar Jung Museum

Lord Vishnu in 'sambhanga' posture

Standing figure of Lord Vishnu in samabhanga posture,  meaning where the  body is placed upright in perfect balance, holding emblems shankha (conch), chakra (wheel), gada (mace) and lotus in four hands. A prabhavali or  circle of  flames at the back, figure of Garuda near the right side and the image of consort  holding a lotus is on the left side. 

Vishnu has a long hara or garland of flowers. At the top of the circular ring kalasha is depicted, from Chalukya period, dated to the 12th century.

Figure of Sridevi (1300/1399)Salar Jung Museum

Figure of Sridevi

Standing figure of Goddess Sridevi, consort of Lord Vishnu. Head is in the karanda-mukuta, right hand is in the pendant and left hand is in lata hastha posture, but lotus is not present, from Vijayanagara era, dated to the 14th century.

Figure of Bhudevi (1500/1599)Salar Jung Museum

Figure of Bhudevi

Standing figure of Bhudevi, consort of Lord Vishnu, her left hand dangling gracefully and the right, half-raised, holding the un-blossomed lotus. The figure stands on a lotus shaped pedestal, a Chola period bronze, dated to the 16th century.

Mahishasura-mardini (1900/1999)Salar Jung Museum

Figure of Mahisasura-mardini

Brass statuette of Goddess Durga as Mahisasura-mardini with four arms, holding sword, trident and mace, resting her left foot on a demon at left. Elongated cut out hole at back, tribal art from South India, dated to the 20th century.

Deepalakshmi (1800/1899)Salar Jung Museum

Deepalakshmi

A figure of Goddess Lakshmi standing on the back of a caparisoned elephant holding a lamp, from South India, dated to the 19th century.

Figure of Nandi (1500/1599)Salar Jung Museum

Nandi

Bronze/brass hollow cast gilded figure of a reclining Nandi, the bull vahana or vehicle of Lord Shiva, from Mysore, dated to the 16th century.

Female Dwarapala (1200/1299)Salar Jung Museum

Female Dwarapala

Tiny standing figure of a female dwarapala or door entrance-guard holding a leaf bud in her right hand with a beautiful chignon at the back of the head, from Kakatiya era, dated to the 13th century.

Ayyanar (1500/1599)Salar Jung Museum

Ayyanar

Four handed figure of presumably an Ayyanar (a Shaivite deity) seated on an elephant holding a bow among other things, from South India, dated to 16th century.

Figure of Lord Surya (1600/1699)Salar Jung Museum

Figure of Lord Surya

Lord Surya on chariot drawn by two horses standing on either side of the base, with Arun as the charioteer. This sculpture is from late Vijayanagara period, dated to the 16th -17th century.

Mask of Shiva (1800/1899)Salar Jung Museum

Mask of Shiva

A unique face mask forming the linga of Lord Shiva, an ekamukhalinga, fitted to a shiva-linga base, from South India, dated to the 19th century.

Paduka (1700/1799)Salar Jung Museum

Paduka

Brass sandals or paduka fitted over a dome shaped terraced base, hollow inside, engraved to represent spotted designs and square panels at the base, from South India, dated to the 18th century.

Folk dancer (1800/1899)Salar Jung Museum

Folk Dancer

Figure of a folk dancer with one hand lifted up, depicted wearing bangles and bracelets, from South India, dated to the 19th century.

Rider on horseback (1800/1899)Salar Jung Museum

Rider on horse-back

Figure of rider on horseback holding a trident in left hand and a drum in the right hand. It may presumably be a Shaivite devotee, a bronze folk piece, from South India, dated to the 19th century.

Credits: Story

Text and Curation: Soma Ghosh
Photography: M. Krishnamurthy and Bahadur Ali
Research Assistance: Dinesh Singh and E. Rajesh
Special thanks to Dr. A Nagender Reddy, Director, Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad, India.

References -
1. Varma, D.N (1996) Indian bronzes in the Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad: Salar Jung Museum.
2. https://tamilnation.org/culture/cholabronze.htm (accessed 31.12.2021)
3. https://researchmatters.in/article/never-ending-story-bronze-artifacts-south-india (accessed
31.12.2021)
4. https://neostencil.com/bronze-sculpture (accessed 31.12.2021)
5. Wikipedia.org (accessed 31.12.2021)
6.6.https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/39328(accessed 05.03.2022)

Credits: All media
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