Being one of the first areas to reach the Bronze age, Bronze casting and sculpting has been part of Indian history. About a 1000 years ago, the art reached another pinnacle under the Cholas where they pushed to improve and refine the art and architecture of the south of India. The Cholas spread their kingdom far and wide, ranging from their home zone in the south to the north of Bengal and out of the country as far as Malaysia and Indonesia.
The South of India enjoying a time of long peace immersed itself into art and literature. The demands of the Kings were high with commemorative temples built to celebrate their gods and so therefore the demands on the artisans to create even more inspirational pieces of art. Bronze casting using the lost wax casting became quite popular during that time.
In the lost wax casting method, a model of the final sculpture is prepared using beeswax. This is the original model around which a cast is built using a special type of clay. They layer needs a minimum thickness which varies depending on the size of the work. Extreme care is taken that the clay covers around the original model properly. This is then fired over a coal and cow dung fire till it hardens. During this process the wax melts away through a hole in the bottom and what is left over is a hollow clay mould.
The bottom hole is sealed and molten bronze is then poured from the top till it fills in the mould completely. The mould may be shaken gently to make sure that the bronze fills in all the crevices well. Since the sculptures tended to be detailed, the bronze has to fill in all the areas within the mould else the cast would not suit the required purpose or be defective.
This bronze is not a true bronze but is a special alloy that was commonly used in the South of India in that period.
Once the bronze hardens, the clay mould is broken. The figure is then cleaned, polished, details cleared up and finalised.
With each sculpture the mould is broken, hence each bronze statue is unique. Duplicates require multiple original moulds but the final scupture will always end up being a bit different.
Since the period of the Cholas though, this art has been continued through demands by successive kingdoms and kings but the demand for them has diminished greatly in the last 100 years. Tanjavur became a very important center of producing sculptures using the method and hence this type of bronze casting also took the name of the city.
Today only a few artisans remain and if you pay a visit to Tanjavur, you must seek them out. The ones that have survived today are artists who have managed to extend their reach to a global market. Some orders come in from new temples being commissioned but it is a small market.
When you visit their workshop you may be able to see them working on a new piece and also buy a few for yourself. Many of the pieces are from a common design, mostly of gods, and the ones that have most saleability. But look around and you may find some that are interesting and different.
When I had last been to Tanjavur it was in 2010 and I have even lost the address to the artist I visited. But seeing our keen interest and the time we spent taking photographs, he took us to a little inside to a dark room. When he switched on the light there, the room was full of different figures and figurines from a few inches to a few foot. An entire wall was decorated with the small pieces and looked like a treasure trove.
We did purchase a couple of pieces for ourselves too. [Photographs below]
Where to go:
You will find the most of the remainder of the artists in Tanjavur.
I have misplaced the address of the artisan I met but some earlier research or asking around locally might help.
Tanjavur has a small airport that is connected to the major airports of the country. In addition there are trains and buses from all over the country to Tanjavur junction.
Best time to Visit:
The South of India is generally hot through out the year hence it is better to schedule your trip during the winter months.
Where to Stay:
There are plenty of hotels in Tanjavur for different budgets. Ideally it is best to pick a hotel near the Train station. It is walkable (a few kms) to the Brihadeeshwara temple and auto rickshaws are available to transport you around.
The Tanjavur cuisine is quite distinct, especially the Vegetarian fare and I suggest you do try out the same.
- The Wikipedia article on The Wikipedia article on Chola Art
- The Wikipedia article on the he Wikipedia article on the Lost Wax Casting method