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The Great Penance at Mamallapuram

The Great Penance at Mamallapuram

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Item Code: NAY792
Author: Michael D. Rabe
Publisher: Institute of Asian Studies, Chennai
Language: English
Edition: 2001
ISBN: 81878920012
Pages: 289 (91 B/W Illustrations)
Other Details: 10.00 X 7.50 inch
Weight 920 gm
About the Book
The Great Penance carving at Mamallapuram is "a work of such inspiration that it cannot be compared In Its power to anything less than the Last Judgment of Michelangelo. It has also remained an intricate mystery with respect to its subject matter, date and authorship. Its varied designations and characterizations such as 'Arjuna's Penance'. 'Descent of the Ganges’ and the plurality of interpretation of the tableau's chief protagonist all indicate our inability to arrive at a holistic comprehension of this visual text. It is in this context that the present study of Dr Michael D Rabe marks a significant breakthrough and a well-made key by which to unlock an impregnable fortress of a complex visual composition.

That Dr Rabe brings in the Oriental metaphor of the mandalas (the concentric diagrams) by which to reintegrate the disparate planes of the Great Penance reveals his profound understanding of this composition, his exemplary perseverance and the sharpness of his critical tools. His perception, in tune with the grammar of the Indian temple architecture, of the existence of four gatehouses of the yantra (iconography, hermeneutics, alamkara sastra and prasasti) and their intertextuality constitutes a sound hypothesis. He proceeds thereon with an inductive examination of these four 'gateways' by looking at them simultaneously and juxtapositioning them. A plurality of approach accomplished by journeying back and forth into epigraphy, history, poetics and literature progressively leads into an empirical translation of the hypothesis into conclusions of critical authenticity and validity.

About the Author
Michael D.Rabe, a professor of South Asian Art History at Saint Xavier University and at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, was born March 10, 1947 in upstate New York. His American parents first came to India as missionaries in 1952 and taught for over thirty years in seminaries affiliated with the Evangelical Church of India in Gadag, Karnataka, Chennai, and Allahabad, U.P. Thus Michael attended Kodaikanal School, near Madurai for most of his primary and secondary education. Subsequent to an undergraduate year at Benares Hindu University, he concentrated his graduate work on the art and religion of South India at the University of Minnesota, with a doctoral dissertation, entitled "The Monolithic Temples of the Pallava Dynasty: a Chronology" (1987)

Besides articles on dance and sculpture of India published in international referral journals including Princeton Readings in Religion Series, Dr Rabe has contributed nine entries on the sculpture and architecture of Tamilnadu to the Dictionary of Art (London: Macmillan, 1996)

Mamallapuram is a supreme cultural monument of Tamil Nadu and the world. It presents the finest flower of the indigenous sculptural accomplishment of the Tamil mind. A perennial treasure-trove of archaeological interest and academic research, it has, over the past hundred years, attracted the best of scholars in the field to marvel at its multifaceted artistic splendour and to examine its structural excellence.

The Great Penance carving there in particular, with its numerous alignments and juxtapositionings between one hundred and fifty larger than life sized human and animal figures of exquisite sensuality, is one of the greatest masterpieces of world art. It is, as Jouveau-Dubreiul describes, "a work of such inspiration that it cannot be compared in its power to anything less than The Last Judgement of Michelangelo". The perfection and sophistication that this artefact marks proclaims as loudly as the unending roar of the Bay of Bengal nearby, the existence of an artistic tradition and civilization that had reached its zenith during the first millennium itself.

Notwithstanding an exceptionally large number of informed studies made on this Great Relief by experts both native and foreign, the 'grammar' of this "worlds" largest narrative sculpture" has remained an intricate mystery, a deliberate conundrum with respect to its subject matter and purpose, date and authorship. Its varied designations and characterizations such as 'Arjuna's Penance', 'Descent of the Ganges', and the plurality of interpretation of the tableau's chief protagonist all indicate our inability to arrive at a holistic comprehension of this visual text.

Mamallapuram, "City of the Great Wrestler," is a popular beach resort on the coast of Tamil Nadu, South India. Now famous for its monolithic carvings and cave-temples, it formerly served as a major port on sea lanes stretching from imperial China to Rome. From the third through the ninth century kings of Pallava Dynasty controlled the region from Kancipuram their capital city 60 kilometres inland (Map 1). Architectural remains at the site indicate that Mamallapuram also served as a major ceremonial centre and residence of Pallava kings from the sixth century onwards, though coins from still earlier periods have been found in dunes along its shores.

In 1984, the site alternatively known as Mahabalipuram was rightly honoured by inclusion on UNESCO's World Heritage List.' The alternate name, meaning "City of the Great Bali," dates from the medieval period when memories of the historical Pallavas were eclipsed by localised pan-Indian myths. Here, it was said, Visnu's dwarf avatar, Varnana, humbled the demon king Bali and caused his splendid beachfront palaces to collapse beneath the sea. This faux-etymology contributed, in turn, to the mystique of another name by which the site has been known to mariners at least since Marco Polo's day, the Seven Pagodas.2 Since only the one Shore Temple is clearly visible from sea, it was supposed that several others must lie submerged beyond the breakers (Plate 2). This oral tradition was vividly recounted in the first systematic "... account of the Sculptures and Ruins at Mavalipuram...known to Seamen by the name of the Seven Pagodas," written by William Chambers after his second visit in 1776:

...the natives of the place declared to the writer of this account, that the more aged people among them, remembered to have seen the tops of several Pagodas far out in the sea, which being covered with copper (probably gilt) were particularly visible at sunrise as their shining surface used to reflect the sun's rays, but that now the effect was no longer produced, as the copper had since become incrusted with mould and verdegrease.

No corroborating archaeological remains offshore have ever been discovered, though in 1727 attempts may have been made in a "Copper diving Engine" and soundings were taken a century later. Before taming inland one kilometre to primary topic of this book, however, it is hard to resist a passing glance at Robert Southey's Curse of Kehama, a verse romance that immortalised Chamber's account in 1810, just before the British Crown conferred laureate status upon the poet

...the Sepulchers of the Ancient Kings, which Baly in his power Made in primeval times; and built above them A city, like the Cities of the Gods, Being like a God himself. For many an age Hath Ocean wand against his Palaces, Till overwheled, they lie beneath the waves, Not overthrown, so well the aweful Chief

Let others admire the sculptures on the rock, for my part I consider them as hideous caricatures. The cats resemble hyenas; the angels or devatas look like rickety children with big heads and swollen bellies; the heroes have thighs like spindles, while the nymphs...have waists as thin as their arms.'

Whatever one eventually thinks about the Great Penance relief it certainly makes an overwhelming first impression (Plate 3). Even seen from a distance, from behind the low 10 by 30 metre parapet that currently blocks closer access, the mountainous panorama defies the mind's eye to grasp it coherently. Yet when one's gaze adjusts to focus on individual figures the rewards are immediate. For notwithstanding the diatribe by Dr Heyne-a rare exception to the acclaim the sculpture habitually receives-one is inevitably struck by the acute naturalism and refinement of the carving. Moreover, an almost palpable élan quickens each figure, many with legs cocked to simulate flight, as they gravitate inexorably towards the centre (Plates 4, 5).

Indeed, the Cliffside panorama at Mamallapuram exemplifies the very apogee of an artistic tradition, one that coincided with a glorious, if brief, Golden Age under Pallava rule. No less an authority than Ananda Coomaraswamy concurred, in effect, by equating Pallava sculpture with that often characterised as Classical for North India, the chiefly Buddhist Statuary from Mathura and Sarnath, dating from the age of the imperial Guptas.

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