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The Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola Bronzes from South India

Media only: Brenda Kean Tabor: 202.357.4880 ext. 319
Barbara Kram: 202.357.4880 ext. 219
Public only: 202.357.2700
Media preview: Tuesday, November 5 at 9 a.m. Call 202.357.4880 ext. 218 to attend.

Between November 10, 2002 and March 9, 2003, the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) presents "The Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola Bronzes from South India" and invites visitors to enjoy the exquisite beauty of 70 bronze temple sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses that were produced during the south Indian Chola dynasty (ninth–13th century).

"As is characteristic of Indian art, Chola bronzes combine visions of the sensuous with notions of the sacred—suggesting that for both the artist and the viewer, external beauty is a condition for inner beauty," says guest curator Vidya Dehejia, former chief curator and deputy director of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Sackler gallery, who now holds the Barbara Stoler Miller Chair in Indian Art at Columbia University.

This is the first exhibition in this country to be devoted exclusively to the art of Chola temple bronzes. The exhibition centers upon examples gathered from public museums and private collections in the United States and Europe. The Freer's own statue of Uma as Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi serves as a stellar example of the vast array of portable bronzes still used in the many daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal Hindu temple rituals and festivals in southern India.

Western art lovers have appreciated the exquisite modeling and graceful form of these bronzes since the time that the French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) first admired a Chola bronze of Shiva Nataraja. Devotees, however, only consider the bronzes to be complete when they are ritually enlivened and opulently adorned. Starting in Chola times and continuing to this day, consecrated bronzes are understood as embodiments of the divine and are paraded to meet and grace worshipers in exuberant outdoor public festivals.

For a period of 400 years, the Chola dynasty was the dominant cultural, artistic, religious and political force in south India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldive Islands. A strong naval power, the Cholas also maintained trade and diplomatic contacts with China and Southeast Asia. Chola rulers proclaimed the power, wealth and piety of their dynasty by dedicating majestic temples and commissioning sculptures of Hindu deities. Religious philosophy, architecture, the performing and fine arts—especially the art of bronze casting—reached unparalleled levels of creativity and perfection under the Chola kings and queens.

While every Chola temple has at its center an immovable image of the main deity, the proliferation of the divine in the form of large collections of portable bronzes is consistent with the Hindu belief that god is a single being, worshiped in multiple names and forms. "To Hindus, multiplicity is as natural as singularity is to the monotheist. Therefore the fact that one Hindu may worship the god Vishnu does not negate the validity of the worship of other gods such as Shiva, Durga, or Ganesha or even the worship of Christ or the Prophet Muhammad," says Professor Dehejia.

Most Chola temples are devoted to manifestations of the god Vishnu or the god Shiva and each has a collection of bronzes of their different avatars or manifestations, as well as their wives and children. Chola bronzes on view in the Sackler Gallery include Shiva as Lord of the Dance, the God Vishnu in his incarnation as man-lion, the god Rama with Sita and monkey-general Hanuman, and bronzes of the goddess in both her benign and fierce forms. Also on view are bronzes of the elephant-headed god Ganesha, Yashoda nursing baby Krishna and several of the Tamil saints. One standing Buddha and two Jinas on view illustrate the extension of Chola patronage and aesthetics to Buddhist and Jain religious communities.

The exhibition uses a number of illuminating techniques to convey the spirit of a Chola ritual and describe the creation of the bronzes:

  • a videotape demonstrates the life of a Chola bronze, from the multi-stage lost-wax (cire perdue) casting process—in which an intricately detailed image is modeled in wax and then caste in bronze—through ritual enlivening of the bronzes, to the temple festival
  • a dramatic installation of a large, silk-draped bronze of Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja) illustrates the lavish adornment of temple bronzes
  • wall labels include verses by the south Indian Tamil saints (sixth–ninth century) relating the beauty of the gods and the wonder of their deeds
  • quotes from Washington, D.C. area Hindus describe the relationships to the divine in both its abstract and manifest forms
  • South Indian classical music and temple chants heard throughout the exhibition evoke the aural environment in which temple bronzes were and are viewed.

In addition, the gallery hosts a number of special programs and performances, while the gallery website also provides enrichment.

Special Programs:

  • Malavika Sarukkai, one of the most renowned dancers in India, will perform Bharatnatyam dances focusing on Shiva and Vishnu (Opening weekend)
  • Mudra Dance Ensemble will perform a program focusing on five deities represented in the exhibition. The dancers demonstrate how movement and gestures identify deities and their heroic deeds. (Dates TBA)
  • in addition to regular docent-led tours, teens from local Hindu temples will lead weekend tours of the exhibition
  • ImaginAsia workshops (art and dance) for children ages six to fourteen accompanied by an adult will be held. (five weekends in November and December)
  • two bronze-casters from India will demonstrate the art of modeling figures in wax. (mid-December—mid-January)
  • scholar Richard Davis will speak on enlivening bronzes and temple processions. (early December)
  • a one-day symposium organized by the American Federation of Arts and moderated by guest curator Vidya Dehejia will be held on March 8.

Web Site:
The gallery's web site at includes several sections.

  • "Who's Who" section in which the different deities are identified
  • "Practice, Then and Now" section showing contemporary photographs of bronzes in use with accompanying explanatory text. Audio clips feature Washington-area Hindus describing their relationships to rituals and the sacred.
  • "Practice, Then and Now" section showing contemporary photographs of bronzes in use with accompanying explanatory text. Audio clips feature Washington-area Hindus describing their relationships to rituals and the sacred.
  • "Process" section explaining the lost wax process
  • section that includes a timeline, map and other data of interest to visitors interested in finding out more about the Cholas and these bronzes

A 256- paged, illustrated catalog with essays by Dehejia, Richard H. Davis, R. Nagaswamy and Karen Pechilis Prentiss, accompanies the exhibition. Available for $49.95 (hardcover) and $35 (softcover), the book is published by the American Federation of Arts, New York in association with Mapin Publishing. The catalogue is supported by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.

The exhibition is organized by the American Federation of Arts and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Support is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities and The Rockefeller Foundation. Additional exhibition support is provided by Gilbert and Ann Kinney, and the Benefactors Circle of the AFA.

Presentation of this exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is made possible by grants from Mary and Farhad Ebrahimi/The Ebrahimi Family Foundation, Margaret and George Haldeman, Nunda Ambegaonkar/Gauri Ambegaonkar Foundation, Gilbert and Ann Kinney, and Sigrid and Vinton Cerf. Additional funding is provided by the Else Sackler Public Affairs Endowment.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries' Web site at

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