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Unbroken tradition

Unbroken tradition

In their chiselled splendour and symmetrical form, the bronzes of Tamil Nadu testify to the grandeur of an art form that reached the peak of perfection a thousand years ago. Acclaimed as amongst the finest achievement of metal sculpture in the world, the Chola and Pallava bronzes embody grace and precision that bring together in one composite whole the artist’s imagination, the poet’s sensibility and the craftsman’s skill. Through the finely proportioned torsos, the slim waists and the exquisitely moulded limbs, the craftsmen (the stapathis) imbued the images with beauty so perfect that the human form was transcended to the divine and a sense of wonder enveloped the devotee.

Though the art of making bronze images dates back to antiquity and was known in many centres in the sub-continent, Tamil Nadu holds pride of place.

Even in a country where continuity is a distinctive feature of life, the icon makers of Swamimalai (10 km from Kumbakonam, principal town in Thanjavur district) are an outstanding example of an unbroken tradition. For even today in this village on the banks of the Cauvery, a hereditary craft is pursued by the descendants of those stapathis whose creative spirit and religious fervour saw idols of surpassing beauty adorn hundreds of temples, big and small.


The stapathis belong to the Viswakarma community and claim descent from this celestial architect who is said to be the builder of the palaces of the gods. Since they performed such an exalted function in society, these craftsmen were greatly respected in the past.

The processes and guidelines for practising the art, the rules on iconometry, and iconography, have been carefully set down in the Silpa sastras and the Agamas. An entire corpus of literature – the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Sutras – guides the stapathi on the making of the icons. A chapter on this can be found in the Manasara and the Abhilashitartha Chintamini authored by Someswara, a western Chalukyan king deals with it. The ancient texts codified between the fourth and sixth centuries AD are generally followed to this day in varying degree. Each step of the work in the past was approached with great devotion. Homams had to be performed and rituals observed from the moment of obtaining the wax for the model till the grand culmination where the eyes of the idol would be incised proclaiming the readiness for puja.

The art of metal sculpture can be traced to ancient times in the country. The earliest find is the bronze figure of the dancing girl of Mohen-jodaro with a great cluster of bangles on her arms. The Gupta Age and the Pala period saw an efflorescence of the art when serene-faced elegant Buddhas were sculpted with devotion, lending them a timeless charm.

In Tamil Nadu, the metal image of the mother goddess found at Adichanalloor in Tirunelveli district is an ancient find dating back as it does to the 7th century B.C.. Buddhism and Jainism were the dominant religions in the Tamil country till the Bhakti movement swept across the land. The appearance of the great Saivite saints – Sundarar, Sambandar, Thirunavukkarasar and Manikavasagar – and the Alwars who propagated Vaishnavism made inroads into Buddhism and Jainism. The Pallavas gave vent from the 7th to the 9th century to their religious ardour through rock cut marvels and bronzes. Under the Cholas who were ardent Saivites, magnificent temples arose adorned with images of great beauty. Processions meant the carrying of idols around the streets surrounding the temples and Utsavamurtis (idols to be taken in procession) were made with a vibrancy and elan that saw the stapathi reach the height of form and inspiration.

This was the golden age of the Chola bronzes (from the 10th to the 13th centuries). Rajaraja I and II, Rajendra Chola, Kulotunga Chola and Sembian Mahadevi endowed the temples with a variety of idols. Siva as Nataraja, the King of Dance assumed such breathtaking perfection that the image danced its way into the hearts of devotees then and even western connoisseurs such as sculptor Rodin 1000 years later. Representing cosmic energy, encapsulating the motion, rest and rhythm of the universe, stamping out the evil demon of ignorance, matted locks flying, foot upraised and arm flung out, the image of Nataraja embodies the consummate skill of the stapathi and a millennia later is still the most favourite form of the craftsman. Lord Siva inspired a myriad of forms each of which the stapathi imprinted with his own consciousness.

Vishnu, the Preserver, in his various incarnations, the auspicious Vinayaka, the beauteous Lakshmi, the graceful Sivakami, the rare Saraswathi, serene saints and reverential kings – the stapathi fashioned them all with verve and vitality. But time saw a waning of his talent and the fire of creativity began to dim. Working within the strict canons of the scriptures, he had yet been able to impart his own glowing spark of individuality to the images he fashioned through the Pallava and Chola reign. The long faces had given way to the round, the rather flat features to the sharp, the austere ornamentation to the elaborate and an entire gallery of icons had taken shape.

But along the way, the finely achieved balance was lost. In the Vijayanagar period, the decline slowly set in. Excessive ornamentation, highly rigid and conventionalised forms spoke of the flame dying out. But it flickered as it still does in the images fashioned today in Swamimalai.

The advent of the British spelt a death-knell to royal patronage of the arts. But the stapathis plodded on. Once thriving around the temple towns of Thanjavur, Madurai and Chidambaram, they drifted towards Swamimalai and were discovered here by those who wanted to revive the art. In 1957, these descendants of the ancient artisans received a fresh lease of artistic life. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, civil servants D. K. Palaniappan (who belonged to the Viswakarma community) and Bhaskaran Thondaiman are remembered with gratitude by the once waning tribe of craftsmen whose future is now bright.

The Tamil Nadu Handicrafts Development Corporation (Poompuhar) was set up in Swamimalai in the Fifties to train artisans and to foster the art. It had just seven families as members then. Now there are 200 stapathis in the town belonging to 50 families. Though most of them are from the Viswakarma community, agricultural workers, masons and carpenters with a yen for the art are fresh entrants to the field.

Classes in sloka recitation, drawing, moulding and ornamentation are held each day. “The Poompuhar craftsman gets a fixed salary, ranging from Rs. 2,000 to Rs. 7,000 a month depending on his skill,” explains Mr. S. Sarangan, Superintendent of the Governments Art Metal Centre at Swamimalai.

The village is an unusual one, the long narrow lanes opening into small houses and cluttered, slushy courtyards resounding to the rhythmic tap of chisel on metal. Stepping into the training centre is like stepping back in time. Huge framed photographs of classic Chola and Pallava bronzes – Vrishabhavahanavar, Kalyana Sundara, Ardhanareeswara – line the walls. The restrained expressions and sharp features are sought to be captured with varying degrees of success by the artisans. Idols in unfinished states – Paavai vilakkus and Devis – casting aureoles of golden radiance stand in a corner.

The measurements confirm with scriptural canons where each little detail is specified. The tala is the unit of measurement used. The Dhyana slokas, the contemplative hymns define the spiritual quality of each deity and the Lakshanas describe the form. The flexions – slight, triple, or extreme bends – are specified as are the weapons, the number of arms and faces that provide a super-human quality to the delineation of basically human forms. Whether the image should be dynamic or static, seated or standing, as also the hand gestures and poses, are set down as well.

The ancient cire perdue or lost wax process is followed in its original form by the artisans. The fashioning of a wax model of the image to be made is the first step. It is done carefully as the final outcome of the icon will depend on how this is executed. Under stapathi Kamaraj’s deft hands, a dancing Saraswathi in the Hoysale style takes shape. A twirl of his fingers and slender wax hands flower in delicate beauty.

Coated with a thick layer of river sand and clay, (the sand of the Cauvery river bed is especially suited for this purpose) the model is dried thoroughly and then heated to melt the wax. Molten metal is poured through an aperture at the base of the model. The five metals symbolising the five elements – copper, brass, lead and small quantities of gold and silver were said to make up the composition of Panchaloha in the past. Now copper is mainly used along with brass and lead. When the metal is poured into the mould, it displaces the wax and this gives the process its name. The model is cooled and the clay broken open to reveal the formed figure. The excess metal is filed and using a variety of chisels, the figure is embellished and ornamented. It is here that the craftsman’s skill is made evident. Since only one mould can be used for one idol, each icon is unique and distinct giving the bronzes their special quality.

In every Pattarai (workshop) in this unusual village, the process is replicated with bronzes ranging from one foot in height to towering eight feet ones being crafted. Apart from the training centre, artisans work on their own with a stapathi employing three or four workers on daily wages. They sell their products, which differ in quality according to their expertise, to the Icon Manufacturers’ cooperative society here or else have their own direct clientele. Temples, offices and hotels are the main buyers. Although the bronzes have their connoisseurs in other countries too, Malaysia and Singapore are the main export markets. However compared to the handicrafts of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu handicrafts, including the bronzes, enjoy a minimal export market and ways are being explored to enlarge it.

Sixty-two year old Devasena Stapathi is a national award winning craftsman whose work is in great demand. He makes idols mainly for worship and has won acclaim for his majestic figures of Nataraja. His entire family is engaged in the craft from his graduate son to his eight-year-old grandson who will take to this hereditary occupation in a few years’ time. Devasena’s uncle Annaswamy Stapathi, taught him the nuances and secrets of the craft which he guards zealously.

“The Government has good schemes for artisans but these are not implemented properly,” says the veteran. He is indignant that Poompuhar rejects many of the idols produced by the Artisan’s Cooperative Society here saying the quality is not good.

This has not been a good year for the craftsmen or for Poompuhar. “Institutional buying is poor and tourist flow is meagre,” says Mr. Adinathan, Sales Manager of Poompuhar, Chennai.

The artisans at Swamimalai are worried about the temporary slump in demand. But septuagenarians like national award winning craftsman Vaidyanatha Stapathi are happy at the change in fortunes of the stapathis over the last few decades. Lovingly fingering the palm leaf manuscripts of the Silpa Sastras, handed down by his ancestors, he remembers how people scoffed at him when he first took to the craft “which had no future”. “But even I did not expect the scenario to improve so much for the stapathis. We have moved from near oblivion 40 years ago to recognition and are now content and happy.” His state of mind is in keeping with the tradition of a class of artisans who so sublimated their ego and desire, that except for a few rare instances, most of their awe-inspiring works, through the centuries, remain unsung.


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