Travelling Through History With My Child (Part Three)

In their quest for history, the father-son duo travel to the National Museum in Delhi. As they discuss the sculptures present in the galleries, more stories about sculptures and history emerge.

By Vijay Kumar

Travelling Through History With My Child (Part Three)
The little boy exploring a Vishnu statue that has a broken upper arm

This is the third and final part of the 3-part series of articles. It aims at making parents and children understand the magnificence of our sculptural heritage, and through it, our rich historical past.

In the first part, the author Vijay Kumar along with his then 9-year-old son visited Kailasanatha temple in Kanchipuram and drew his son’s attention to its monuments, paintings and legends.

You may read the first part here: Travelling Through History With My Child

The second part unravels another journey of the father-son duo exploring caves and stone-cut sculptures in the caves near Kanchipuram in a non-descript village named Thoosi Mamandur.

You may read the second part here: Travelling Through History With My Child (Part Two)

Moving on, let’s now read where this curious father-son duo are headed this time. Join their exciting voyage to some historical places to uncover the mystery of these places.

“We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.” – John Hope Franklin, 20th Century historian.
Travelling Through History With My Child (Part Three)
The curious preteen taking notes of all the statues

Vacation time is here and we are busy making travel plans. Our conversation went like this.

Son: Dad, where are we going today?”

Me: “Delhi has innumerable historical places one can visit. But we are going to a place which most visitors usually skip.”

Son: “You mean cave-hunting in Delhi?”

Me: “No, last week you visited empty caves near Kanchipuram. Today, we will see a collection of sculptures that could have adorned them, maybe not during the same period in the 7th century CE (Common Era) but definitely around the 8th century CE.”

Son: “You mean the Pallava sculptures in Delhi?”

Me: “Yes, but not Pallava alone. You will see artifacts that date back to the Indus Valley from Harappa and Mohenjo-daro — 4500 years ago, that is 3,300 BCE (Before Common Era).”

Son: “Wow! So, Dad, where are we going exactly?”

Me: “We are going to visit India’s largest museum — the National Museum. And you are going to help me take notes.”

Son: “Notes? Who is going to take the class?”

Me: “Not a class, but I will be taking the photographs of the exhibits, while you note down the information given on the plates. The plates will mention the approximate period of the artwork, a dynasty like Chola or Pallava, location of the find, and its provenance.”

Son: “What is provenance?”

Me: “Provenance is an artwork’s ownership record. Boy, we don’t have much time — so let us explore the museum. First, let's do a quick round of the Harappan exhibits before moving to the South Indian section. Later, you will see several stone and bronze sculptures — the pinnacle of South Indian art is said to be the Chola bronze sculptures from the 10th and 11th century CE. However, what you see here is the most famous bronze work of all time — the Dancing Girl. Can you take notes?”

Son: “Dancing Girl, Mohenjo-daro, Indus Valley Civilisation, c.a 2600-1900 BCE, Bronze, height 10 cm, lost-wax process.”

Me: “There are a few more artefacts shaped like children’s toys. Remember the animal toys you used to pull along when you were a child? These are just like that but fashioned in bronze. Come, let us go to the South India stone section. Now, what you see here is a 10th-11th century CE Chola door guardian.”

Son: “Okay, let me write. Door Guardian, 10-11th C CE, Chola, South India.“

Me: “When the Pallavas were sculpting the door guardian on the walls of their caves, it was called sculpting in relief. Later, they found it easier to build structural temples and they began sculpting free-standing figures, which paved the way for bigger and larger temples. A museum is a great place to understand how the styles evolved over a period, as you can compare them side by side. This Vishnu in granite belongs to the Pallava period.“

Travelling Through History With My Child (Part Three)
Vishnu - 7th Century, Kanchipuram

Son: “7th C CE Pallava, Kanchipuram. But, Dad, how did you identify it?“

Me: "It is not easy, but neither is it difficult. You must check the headdress (cylindrical), the shape of the torso and also the facial features. Notice how the discus is held sideways as though it is about to be thrown? This posture is called Prayoga Chakra. Later, we will see a Chola bronze statue of Vishnu and you might be able to spot the differences.“

Son: “Dad, who is this? He has nothing in his hands! How do we know which God it is?“

Me: “He is Vishnu. His two upper hands, holding the conch and the discus, are broken. But you can still identify it as Vishnu by the triangular mark on his right chest — the srivatsam.“

Son: “Will the mark be present on all stone sculptures of Vishnu?“

Me: “Yes, not only in stone but also in metal. The earliest sculptures must have been made of wood or stucco and kept in the sanctum. But since wood and stucco images don’t last for many years, you did not see any deities in the caves. With time, the Pallavas must have started carving in stone. They also moved to structural temples, and so the sizes of temples began to grow.“

Son: “Yes, I remember how the Kailasanatha temple was very large compared to the Mamandur caves.“

Me: “Good! Again, with large stone deities, there also arose a need for smaller movable ones. Thus came into being the practice of stone Moolavar and having a set of movable bronze sculpture called Utsava Murthi.“ 

Son: “Oh yes, the ones they bring out on processions.“

Me: “Yes, they are the Utsava Murthis. See this late Chola bronze Vishnu.“

Son: “Vishnu, Chola period, 13th C CE.“

Me: “Yes, do you see how the chakra is facing us? This style indicates it must belong to the 10th C CE or later.“

Son: “I can also see the srivatsam clearly on the chest.“

Me: “This is the chatura form of Shiva dancing. Chola, 10th C CE , Tiruvarangulam.“

Travelling Through History With My Child (Part Three)
Nataraja late Chola period, 12th century, Tanjore.

Son:  “Yes. And here is the signature Chola masterpiece — the Nataraja! Nataraja, late Chola 12th C CE, Tanjore.“

Me: “You will be surprised to note that the process for making the Harappan Dancing Girl and the dancing Nataraja are the same — it is called the lost-wax process.“

Son: "Amazing, Dad! Tell me more about the process.“

Me: “Well, in the lost-wax method, a craftsman first fashions the image in wax, then coats it with clay and allows it to dry for a couple of days. Then, the entire image is heated whereby the wax melts, leaving the hollow mould into which hot metal is poured. Once it cools, the clay mould is broken. This way, each sculpture is unique and not mass-produced like your Vinayaga Chaturti Ganesha or Chinese figurines these days. We will see the process when we visit the great craftsmen at their homes in Swamimalai but that will be on your next holiday! So you will have to wait.“ 

The author Vijay Kumar is a sculpture enthusiast.

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