May 31, 2023
Nataraja Shiva

Nataraja Shiva

Subtle expressions of serenity and tranquillity have been crafted by Indian sculptors using the lost-wax process, creating masterpieces that are admired worldwide.

Bronze sculptures and statuettes have been an integral part of Indian art for centuries. Indian sculptors have mastered the medium of bronze and the casting process as much as they have mastered terracotta sculpture and carving in stone. The cire-perdu or ‘lost-wax’ process for casting bronze was learned as long ago as the Indus Valley Civilization. Along with it was discovered the process of making an alloy of metals by mixing copper, zinc, and tin, which is called bronze.

Bronze sculptures and statuettes of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain icons have been discovered from many regions of India dating from the second century until the sixteenth century. Perhaps the earliest known bronze sculpture is the ‘Dancing Girl’ in tribhanga posture from Mohenjodaro, datable to 2500 BCE. The limbs and torso of this female figurine are simplified in tubular form. A similar group of bronze statuettes has been discovered on archaeological excavation at Daimabad (Maharashtra), datable to 1500 BCE. The ‘Chariot,’ the wheels of which are represented in simple circular shapes while the driver or human rider has been elongated, and the bulls in the forefront are modelled in sturdy forms, is also significant.

Standing Buddha in Abhayamudra

Many standing Buddha images with the right hand in abhaya mudra were cast in North India. The sanghati, or the monk’s robe, is wrapped to cover the shoulders which turn over the right arm, while the other end of the drapery is wrapped over the left arm. Eventually, the pleats are held by the extended hand of the same arm. The drapery falls and spreads into a wide curve at the level of the ankles. The Buddha’s figure is modeled in a subtle manner suggesting the thin quality of the cloth. The whole figure is treated with refinement, and there is a certain delicacy in the treatment of the torso. The figure appears youthful and proportionate in comparison with the Kushana style.

In addition to Buddhist iconography, images of Jain Tirthankaras have been discovered from Chausa, Bihar, belonging to the Kushana Period during the second century CE. These bronzes show how Indian sculptors had mastered the modeling of masculine human physique and simplified muscles. A remarkable depiction is that of Adinath or Vrishabhnath, who is identified with long hairlocks dropping to his shoulders. Otherwise, the Tirthankaras are noted by their short curly hair.

The Gupta and Vakataka bronzes were portable, and monks carried them from place to place for individual worship or to be installed in Buddhist Viharas. In this way, the refined classical style spread to different parts of India and to Asian countries overseas. The hoard of bronzes discovered in Akota near Vadodara established that bronze casting was practiced in Gujarat or western India between the sixth and ninth centuries. Most of the images represent the Jaina Tirthankaras like Mahavira, Parshvanath or Adinath. A new format was invented in which Tirthankaras are seated on a throne. They can be single or combined in a group of three or in a group of twenty-four Tirthankaras. Female images were also cast, representing Yakshinis or Shasanadevis of some prominent Thirthankaras.

The Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir regions also produced bronze images of Buddhist deities as well as Hindu gods and goddesses. Most of these were created during the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries and have a very distinct style in comparison with bronzes from other parts of India. A noteworthy development is the growth of different types of iconography of Vishnu images. Four-headed Vishnu, also known as

Vaikunta Vishnu, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Chaturanana or Vaikuntha Vishnu, was worshipped in these regions. While the central face represents Vasudeva, the other two faces are that of Narasimha and Varaha. The Narasimha avatar and Mahishasuramardini Durga images of Himachal Pradesh are among the very dynamic bronzes from that region.

Moving forward, it is important to mention that bronze casting was not limited to just religious iconography. In fact, some of the most impressive bronze works in India were created for non-religious purposes. For example, the famous Nataraja bronze statue, which depicts the Hindu god Shiva in his cosmic dance, is a masterpiece of Indian bronze art. The statue, which dates back to the Chola period (9th-13th century CE), is now housed in the Brihadeeswara Temple in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu.

In conclusion, the Indian bronze sculptures are a testament to the country’s rich artistic heritage and technical ingenuity. From the early bronzes of the Indus Valley Civilization to the sophisticated and refined works of the Gupta and Vakataka periods, Indian bronze sculpture has evolved and flourished over thousands of years. These masterpieces have not only served as objects of veneration and worship but also as a medium of artistic expression that has inspired generations of artists and sculptors across the world.

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