“Exquisitely poised and supple, these bronze deities stand silent on their plinths, yet with their hands they speak gently to their devotees through the noiseless lingua franca of the gestures (or mudras) of south Indian dance: their hands are raised in blessing and reassurance, promising boons and protection,and, above all, marriage, fertility and fecundity, in return for the veneration that is so clearly their divine right.
In western art, few sculptors - except perhaps Donatello or Rodin - have achieved the pure essence of sensuality so spectacularly evoked by the Chola sculptors; or achieved such a sense of celebration of the divine beauty of the human body. There is a startling clarity and purity about the way the near-naked bodies of the gods and
the saints are displayed. Yet by the simplest and most modest of devices,their spirit and powers, joys and pleasures, and above all their enjoyment of each other's beauty and their overwhelming sexuality, is highlighted
But, to ask a basic question. Why do humans even bother to create or view art? Some years back, Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran, a renowned neuroscientist, pondered over this question and tried to provide an explanation for the human appreciation of art, in terms of the neural process that goes on in the brain. He wondered if there were any universal laws that transcended cultural barriers or layers, in the appreciation of art. And, for his study, he took up the case of the Chola bronze statues that Darlymple has now written glowingly about.
In his paper, “The Artful Brain”, Dr Ramachandran says that bronze sculptures from the Chola period in India a thousand years ago are revered because they express the epitome of feminine poise and grace, charm and sensuality. But the Victorian art historians of the 19th century judged the statues appalling because they were not realistic: the waists were too narrow, the breasts too big, the posture provocative. But art has nothing to do with realism; it is about producing pleasing effects in the brain
Yet an artist cannot simply randomly distort a human figure and expect to generate a pleasing result. There appear to be some principles that cut across cultural boundaries.
One of these principles, Dr. Ramachandran suggested, is that exaggerated forms invoke a greater response than the natural form. This phenomenon may be explained by studying animal behavior. If a rat learns that a rectangular shape connotes that he will soon be fed, he is likely to prefer shapes that are even more rectangular, longer, and skinnier. This "peak shift" is used in art to create caricatures. Take Nixon's craggy brow and big nose, amplify them, and the result looks more like Nixon than he does! Similarly, the Chola artists of India simply took the average female form and subtracted the average male form- leaving big breasts, big hips and narrow waist- and amplified the difference. The result was one very anatomically incorrect, but a very sexy goddess,
So, coming back to the basic question. Why do humans even bother creating or viewing art? Dr.Ramachandran’s conjecture is that Art may have evolved as a virtual simulation reality. When you imagine something –as when rehearsing a bison hunt or an amorous encounter- many of the same brain circuits are activated as when you are really doing something. This allows you to practice scenarios in an internal simulation without incurring the energy, cost or risk of a real rehearsal.
So, whether it is a Picasso, Van Gogh or a Chola bronze, you willingly allow that piece of art to deceive your brain.