Gods were created by men. So say some. I have no quarrel with anyone claiming that or the contrary.
But it's always a privilege to get to watch "Gods" being created by men.
One of the Six Holy Forts ( Padai Veedu in Tamil) of Lord Murugan, Swamimalai is a small town buzzing around an ancient temple dedicated to the Divine Child known here as His Father's Preceptor ( Swami-nathan or Thagappan-swami).
The town is equally well known for its bronzes. A handful of workshops here turn out exquisite bronze and Panchaloha ( 5 Metal Alloy) artefacts using processes that have remained unchanged for ages . The art of bronze casting here was kept exclusively within a small knot of artisan-families who trace their lineage to the Divine Craftsman, Vishwakarma. But now, "outsiders" can also get training from them. There's also a government run school which takes in not more than 20 pupils for each course that runs two years.
The workshops where the sculptures are created are just rude sheds adjoining the humble homes of the craftsmen. Cruising through narrow alleys, stepping across puddles of mud and uncleared garbage, we arrive at the frontyard of a bronzecaster who has agreed to give us a tutorial about his ancient art. We see odd looking lumps of half dried clay laid out on straw mats and gunnybags. And browsing on some stalks of grain piled on the front yard are two fat black goats.
Shooing them away with a smart thwack of his hand towel, the smith conducts us inside a dark but spacious workroom. Sacks, cartons and waste material are strewn about. Gaudy calender pictures of deities adorn the pock marked, uneven walls. Unfinished products are stacked against an old teakwood almirah. Five workmen are busy finishing the finer details on two huge bronze figures , booked for shipment to an overseas customer.
The method used for making the sculptures here is the very ancient Lost Wax Process ; or Cire Perdue, as it is called in High Art circles. Its vedic name is "Madhuchistta Vidhana" .
The composition of the wax, the clay and the metal have remained unchanged since hoary times ; so also the implements..........it gives me a thrill of wonder and amazement to be reminded by him that the famous 5000year old "dancing girl" figurine of Mohenjo Daro was also sculpted by the very same process !
They still use the coconut-palm leaf ( Odi-olai) instead of the more convenient measuring tape for working out proportions. The first step is to make a palmleaf ribbon, exactly the length of the intended image. This leaf is folded over 12 or 124 times ( according to the complexity of the artefact to be produced) into equal units which are creased and marked on the ribbon. Units are called, according to the size, Talas, Angulas or Yavas. Proportions are worked out in multiples of these unit. The ratios handed down by ancient texts are religiously adhered to, in order to achieve the perfect, ideal, form.
Every craft project begins with a prayer, a shloka from Agni Purana, beseeching divine help in successful completion of the task.
The procedure sounds simple. The figure is fashioned out of wax, covered with a heavy layer of clay, fired and the melted wax is tapped off, leaving a mould inside the clay lump, into which molten metal is poured and cooled. Break the clay mould and Voila ! the God appears ! Both solid and hollow castings are made this way, the latter starting with a clay core that is later scrapped out.
The wax used for modelling is a mixture of beewax, tree resin and groundnut oil.
The clay comes from the bed and banks of River Kaveri . They swear by this incomparable clay because it is so fine that even a fingerprint can look like a vivid engraving,and its so strong and homogenous that it never cracks upon firing.
No modern kilns are used. Firing the clay mould and melting of the metal are both done on charcoal or coke fires lit in pits in the floor of the workshop.
A lot of pious rituals attend every step of the procedure, be it lighting the fire or breaking the mould or sculpting the eyes.
A major part of the metals ( Copper , Brass, Tin) used here comes from recycling discarded utensils, broken temple ware and automobile and industrial coil wire wastes. Metal is also recovered from the workshop floor itself , from the slag and the crust inside the melting crucibles. Nothing is wasted !
The mark of a fine craftsman is to deliver a finely detailed sculpture right upon breaking open the baked clay cast. The trick lies in controlling the temperature as well as the pace of the flow of the molten metal poured into the clay cast vacated by the melted wax . But this is exacting work and few today can do it with the perfection eulogised in historical works. Today, only the basic form is delivered from the cast and all details are hand chiselled later, on the metal form.
In addition to religious icons, a lot of decorative articles ( "show pieces" ) are also made where the sculptors can give their imagination a free run. But where images of gods are concerned, they adhere to the "lakshana" guidelines handed down the generations . These, when recounted by the sculptor, do sound so poetic ! The eyes are to be like neem leaves, the nose like sesame flower, neck like the whorls on a conch shell ; the torso of a male like the head of a cow, arms like a young elephant's trunk, knee like a crab, feet like fish...................No wonder the youthful, turbaned Rishabaruda, ( 1100 AD, standing in Thanjavur Museum ) , the Thiruvenkadu Ardhanariswara ( 11th Cent, standing in Chennai Museum ), and the 8 ft. Nataraja ( dated 9th Cent.,but deemed swayambu, dancing in Konerirajapuram temple) look so stunning and seductive !
Swamimalai, from being a pilgrimage centre, has blossomed into a Tourist Point attracting hordes of curious visitors eager to see the ancient processes of this wonderful craft. They always leave in awe and admiration...........and with a souvenir !
The latest attraction that has sprung up in Swamimalai is a lovely Heritage Home called Anandam which completes the "Time Machine" effect.
I remembered Swamimalai today (- hence this post ! -) as i gave the most favourite object in my collection , a Swamimalai bronze Shiva, a long due cleaning and polishing.(Below)
( Pics. of Workshop : by my father . Pics. in slide show : from postcards Pic. below: by daughter)