Originally sacred temple objects, Chola bronzes are the only art form from Tamil Nadu to have penetrated the world art market. The most memorable bronze icons are the Natarajas, or dancing Shivas. The image of Shiva, standing on one leg, encircled by flames, with wild locks caught in mid-motion, has become almost as recognizably Indian as the Taj Mahal.
The principal icons of a temple are usually stationary and made of stone. Frequently, however, ceremonies require an image of the god to be led in procession outside the inner sanctum, and even through the streets. According to the canonical texts known as Agamas, these moving images should be made of metal. Indian bronzes are made by the cire-perdue (“lost wax”) process, known as madhuchchishtavidhana in Sanskrit. Three layers of clay mixed with burned grain husks, salt and ground cotton are applied to a figure crafted in beeswax, with a stem left protruding at each end. When that is heated, the wax melts and flows out, creating a hollow mould into which molten metal – a rich five-metal alloy (panchaloha) of copper, silver, gold, brass and lead – can be poured through the stems. After the metal has cooled, the clay shell is destroyed, and the stems filed off, leaving a unique completed figure, which the caster-artist, or sthapathi, remodels to remove blemishes and add delicate detail.
Those bronzes produced by the few artists practising today invariably follow the Chola model; the chief centre is now Swamimalai. Original Chola bronzes are kept in many Tamil temples, but as the interiors are often dark it’s not always possible to see them properly. Important public collections include the Royal Palace Compound at Thanjavur, the Government Museum at Chennai and the National Museum, New Delhi.