Creative expressions of Otagaki Rengetsu. While I am preparing a more detailed account of early women artists of Japan, you have the opportunity of learning more about her here.
Ananda Coomaraswamy, architecture, art, Art history, art village, artisan, Bharatnatyam, Chola, culture, dance, drama, India, music, musical instrument, painting, sculpture, shtapatya veda, Tamil Nadu, Tanjore, temple, Thanjavur, vastu, veena
This is not a travelogue. My trip to Tanjore (also known as Thanjavur) was taken too long ago to write a reliable travel diary on the same. I only had a brief rendezvous with the city and its surrounding. But even during that brief visit, what impressed me most about Tanjore remains to this date its greatest asset. Tanjore was one of the cultural hubs of India. Though much has changed during its millennia old history, Tanjore continues to latch on its artistic legacy. Surprisingly, even with being a UNESCO World Heritage site, Tanjore remains somewhat inconspicuous in international tourist map.
Architectural Marvel’s of Tanjore
The city experienced its biggest flourish during the Chola period, more than a thousand years ago. Its greatest architectural marvel is visible from far away, even before you set a foot on its ground. Brihadeshwara Temple celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 2010. From a distance it may look like just other massive temple structures of the region, particularly to the unfamiliar eyes, but look closer. Its shikhara or vimana (roof), which almost seems to embrace the sky, is decorated with most intricate examples of reliefs and sculptures. The pyramidal shikhara sits on a square base, a uniqueness observable in Chola architecture. It is topped with a giant kalash (pot) located on a lotus equally massive. Lotus symbolises the universe while kalash harnesses the universal energy. The kalash was moulded from a special mixture of metal, including gold and copper, filled with holy water and other consecrated materials. Step in the walled temple complex through any of the gopurams (gateways). The gopurams are made with as much care as the main building and carry beautiful carving depicting age old tales of wisdom. The interior of the temple was embellished with rich murals many of which are hardly discernible now. But the patches of paints and motifs that remain, give us a vivid example of the skilful craftsmanship of the time.
Every inch of the vast temple complex was constructed following the ancient principles Vastu Shastra and Sthapatya Veda (studies of architecture). Don’t for a moment consider these to be the current phoney version of Vastu Shastra spun out for commercial profit. This knowledge of constructing sacred or civilian buildings, landscaping and planning for an entire town or village is older than 5000 years. Otherwise, these buildings would not have had the capability of withstanding the ravages of time for so long.
Brihadeshwara Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. He is accompanied by his two consorts – Nandi (the bull, disciple of Shiva) and Mahakala (time). Ancient literature and art often spoke in allegories. Comprehending the underlying significance of the imagery helps greatly in the appreciation of the work. Ananda Coomaraswamy, Indian subcontinents pioneering art historian and curator of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, authored numerous books in this regard. To understand Lord Shiva or Nataraja, as depicted in Indian art, I would suggest a reading of The Dance of Shiva. Shiva paves the way for the new (regeneration) removing the outmoded elements of life (destruction). He pervades time and uproots the bondage of illusion and ignorance. It is here where his association with Mahakala and Nandi begins, the former being Father Time incarnate and the latter an example of supreme devotion and strength. The temple is replete with such remarkable examples of symbolism in art, architecture and literature.
The second exquisite example of Chola architecture lies somewhat in negligence slightly away from the city, in Gangaikonda Cholapuram. Though comparatively smaller in size, its value in the world of engineering, art and architecture is no less important than Brihadeshwara Temple. The main temple is so constructed that its shadow never falls on the ground the entire year. Innumerable pieces of sculpture decorate the entire premises. Even the water well is covered with a giant statue of lion. Those having a flair for designing dresses and jewelleries will find numerous inspirations here to borrow from.
Airavatesvara Temple is situated 35 km away from the city in Darasuram. Even though it is created during the same period, the structure of the temple differs widely from the other two sacred sites mentioned already. It speaks volumes about the versatility of the artists of the then Tanjore. The mandapam (main temple) is formed as a gigantic horse drawn carriage. Its shikhara, though not taller than Brihadeshwara, thrives on its unique barrel shape. Like the other two, the entire body of the building is decorated with ornate sculptures. The meditation hall boasts of pillars each unique in its design. Interestingly, close observation of the reliefs on the pillars reveal a lot about the socio-economic condition of the time. The inside walls of the buildings are covered with murals. Even the pipelines and water openings are carved with great care and beauty. One of the smaller shrines of the temple has three steps that produce varied musical notes on setting a foot on each of them, such was the ingenuity of creator architect. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Many temple pillars of the region produce sounds resembling the musical notes of various stringed instruments, mridangam, dholak (a kind of drum) and so on.
A visit to Tanjore’s Art Gallery will afford further knowledge of the city’s sculptural masterpieces, particularly bronze figures. There are other palaces and civilian buildings that, though built on a later date, arouse everyone’s admiration. But like renaissance art found greatest expression in sacred paintings and sculptures, here too the finest examples of art lie in the region’s oldest edifices – the temples.
Broadening of Horizon – Influence on Dance, Music & Drama
Tanjore’s artistic majesty did not limit itself to the city’s temples, palaces or other prominent landmarks. Instead, its influence reached every corner of Tanjore. Local artists and artisans found financial backing from the monarchs. The artistic supremacy of the master figures powered the evolution as well. All four forms of art – painting, sculpture, music and dancing – started observing rapid changes and introduction of new ideas. Classical Tanjore painting (not the Tanjore miniatures as it is seen today, these came into being in late 16th century) received a huge boost. Elaborate panel paintings and murals became more developed. Owing to the superior economic condition of the time, metal craft also saw amazing advancement. The paintings were encrusted with precious and semi-precious stones, gold and silver leaves.
Bharathanatyam (a dance drama form that is based on the two thousand year old principles of Natya Shastra, i.e., Theory of Drama) too could not escape this artistic resurgence. This dance form thrives on the playfulness of expression (bhava), sentiment (rasa), action (kriya) and music (ragam). Elaborate sculptures depicting various Bharatnatyam postures can still be seen on the Brihadeshwara Temple’s walls. The temples regularly arranged devotional music and dance festivals. Brihadeshwara Temple hosts annual music and dance events even today.
In this atmosphere, vocal and instrumental music could not have remained in lurking in desolation. It duly began its exploration for supremacy. Besides other musical instruments, Tanjore contributed in the further development of Saraswati Veena, a stringed instrument indispensable in Carnatic music.
Following the tradition of the region, the knowledge of painting, sculpting or playing music are still handed down by the gurus (masters) to their devoted shishyas (pupils). Many families of artisans carry these knowledge and skills as a legacy for generations.
Though greatly fallen from its former glory days, Tanjore and its surrounding still strive on to create that perfect work of art in a much smaller scale. The narrow streets of Tanjore’s Art Village, Swamimalai and other places nearby still produce brass sculptures, miniature paintings and musical instruments all the while fighting the ignominy of modern time.
The Arts & Crafts of India & Ceylon by Ananda Coomaraswamy
Early Architecture by S Kak
Your vernal foliage never had to go through the anguish of decay. Even hundred years on, your Shinryoku remains a harbinger of hope for everyone who chances an eye on them. And, you Hayami? Even if death nipped the bud of your artistic majesty, you remained defiant. Life triumphed through your art. It continue to do so even today.
June 29 marks the 154th death anniversary of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She was born on March 6, 1806 in county Durham to Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett and Mary Graham Clarke. The Barretts were wealthy and Elizabeth’s early childhood spent with her eleven siblings in their family estate of Herefordshire were comfortable. She revealed her literary aspirations early in her life. Her father admired her efforts and on her 14th birthday presented her with 50 printed copies of her poetry.
About this time Elizabeth also started showing signs of a failing health. A mystery disease that remained undetected during her lifetime started plaguing her. She contacted lung infections in her early days which also showed sings of recurrence. Her illness often used to make her dizzy and morphine was of no use to subdue her pain that spread across her spine and head. She started becoming dependent on a opium concoction to alleviate her physical discomfort.
Elizabeth’s courtship and eventual marriage to Robert Browning in 1840s did not go down well with the family. Her father disinherited her from the property and her brothers severed ties with her. Elizabeth moved to Italy with her husband Robert Browning and her loyal nurse since childhood. Robert Browning was well known in Italy, did have earnings of his own to sustain his family. Together Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning shared an amicable relationship. Both the conviviality at home and the warmer climate of Italy had a positive effect on Elizabeth’s health.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning knew and was friendly with many of the prominent authors of the day. This included such personalities as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Makepeace Thackeray, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas Carlyle, Harriet Beecher Stowe and George Sand. She vehemently campaigned for the abolition of slavery, a curse that she was well aware of owing to her ancestral connection to the plantations of Jamaica.
We walked beside the sea,
After a day which perished silently
Of its own glory – like the Princess weird
Who, combating the Genius, scorched and seared,
Uttered with burning breath, ‘Ho! victory!’
And sank adown, an heap of ashes pale;
So runs the Arab tale.
The sky above us showed
An universal and unmoving cloud,
On which, the cliffs permitted us to see
Only the outline of their majesty,
As master–minds, when gazed at by the crowd!
And, shining with a gloom, the water grey
Swang in its moon–taught way.
Nor moon nor stars were out.
They did not dare to tread so soon about,
Though trembling, in the footsteps of the sun.
The light was neither night’s nor day’s, but one
Which, life–like, had a beauty in its doubt;
And Silence’s impassioned breathings round
Seemed wandering into sound.
O solemn–beating heart
Of nature! I have knowledge that thou art
Bound unto man’s by cords he cannot sever–
And, what time they are slackened by him ever,
So to attest his own supernal part,
Still runneth thy vibration fast and strong,
The slackened cord along.
For though we never spoke
Of the grey water anal the shaded rock,–
Dark wave and stone, unconsciously, were fused
Into the plaintive speaking that we used,
Of absent friends and memories unforsook;
And, had we seen each other’s face, we had
Seen haply, each was sad.
Life bears us on like the stream of a mighty river. Our boat at first glides down the narrow channel through the playful murmurings of the little brook, and the winding of the grassy borders. The trees shed their blossoms over our young heads, the flowers on the brink seem to offer themselves to our young hands; we are happy in hope, and we grasp eagerly at the beauties around us; but the stream hurries us on, and still our hands are empty. Our course in youth and manhood is along a wilder and deeper flood, amid objects more striking and magnificent. We are animated at the moving pictures of enjoyment and industry passing around us. We are excited at some short–lived disappointment. The stream bears us on, and our joys and griefs are alike left behind us. We may be shipwrecked – we cannot be delayed; whether rough or smooth, the river hastens to its home, till the roar of the ocean is in our ears, and the tossing of the waves is beneath our feet, and the land lessens from our eyes, and the floods are lifted up around us, and we take our leave of earth and its inhabitants, until of our further voyage there is no witness save the Infinite and Eternal.
~Reginald Heber (via It’s Quoted)
Digital artwork by me.
When your head did but ache,
I knit my handkerchief about your brows,
The best I had, a princess wrought it me,
And I did never ask it you again;
And with my hand at midnight held your head,
And, like the watchful minutes to the hour,
Still and anon cheer’d up the heavy time,
Saying, “What lack you?” and, “Where lies your grief?”
Anna Laetitia Barbauld (June 20, 1743 – March 9, 1825)
Awake, my soul! lift up thine eyes,
See where thy foes against thee rise,
In long array, a numerous host;
Awake, my soul! or thou art lost.
Here giant Danger threatening stands
Mustering his pale terrific bands;
There Pleasure’s silken banners spread,
And willing souls are captive led.
See where rebellious passions rage,
And fierce desires and lusts engage;
The meanest foe of all the train
Has thousands and ten thousands slain.
Thou tread’st upon enchanted ground,
Perils and snares beset thee round;
Beware of all, guard every part,
But most, the traitor in thy heart.
“Come then, my soul, now learn to wield
The weight of thine immortal shield;”
Put on the armour from above
Of heavenly truth and heavenly love.
The terror and the charm repel,
And powers of earth, and powers of hell;
The Man of Calvary triumphed here;
Why should his faithful followers fear?
Painting by Nikolay Bogdanov Belsky
Rabindranath Tagore (May 7, 1861 – August 7, 1941)
I ask for a moment’s indulgence to sit by thy side. The work that I have in hand I will finish afterwards.
Away from the sight of thy face my heart knows no rest nor respite, and my work becomes an endless toil in a shoreless sea of toil.
Today the summer has come at my window with its sighs and murmurs; and the bees are plying their minstrelsy at the court of the flowering grove.
Now it is time to sit quite, face to face with thee, and to sing dedication of life in this silent and overflowing leisure.
Painting by Jamini Roy (April 11, 1887 – April 24, 1972)