Tribal Indian Bronzes: Street Parade of the Gods

Bronzes from
the Bastar region, India, 20th century Museum Rietberg
 Donated by Heidi and Hans Kaufmann, Dorothea and Jean-Pierre Zehnder, Janine Magnenat Ferguson
 © Museum Rietberg. Photo: Rainer Wolfsberger

THIS EXHIBITION STAGES a parade of some 300 tribal Indian bronzes of deities, horsemen, animals and dancers in a state of trance. They are all from Bastar, an old princely state located in today’s Indian State of Chhattisgarh. Approximately two thirds of Bastar’s population are members of one of the registered Indian tribes, the so-called ‘First Settlers’ (adivasi). Their works of art are often referred to as tribal bronzes.

The Dandakaranya Region

The inhabitants of the Dandakaranya region worship an almost inconceivably large number of deities, mainly goddesses. Often a certain tribal Indian bronze of a deity would appear to an ancestor of a particular family and demand to be venerated in their house. The head of the family would then commission the local metal caster to create a cult figurine of the god, and would leave it up to the imagination of the experienced artist to choose the appropriate attributes and decorations.

Bronze Figurines

Most of the tribal Indian bronze figures on display were donated to the shrine of a particular deity to give thanks to the god for granting a wish. Such bronze figurines used to be sold in the many farmers markets and at large annual festive processions. Metal casters would come from all corners of the region to sell their wares, and each of them had their own characteristic style. Their creative power and technical skill gave rise to such a huge variety of depictions of the same deity.

With their vivid expressions and meaningfully placed ornaments these tribal Indian bronzes clearly set themselves apart from those of so-called ‘classical’ Indian art. On one hand they were not made until the early 20th century, and on the other they display their own unique aesthetics: their rugged faces are male in appearance, and their unusual attributes and dynamic postures radiate extraordinary power and energy. The key to understanding these artistic traditions, of which very little is known to date, lies in the function and status of these bronze figures within the religious and social lives of the population.

Indian Figurines and Rituals

We can only surmise which individual deities are actually represented in this exhibition. Often, they can only be conclusively identified if their original place of veneration is known. According to the participants in the rituals the venerated deities are actually present in the figures. The gods are present during the rituals and attend to the requests and woes of their followers.

The religious practice is essentially shaped by the belief in the transcending significance and effect of the act of seeing: the gods allow their worshippers to catch a glimpse of them (darshan dena), which in turn is received by the devotees (darshan lena). By the gods showing themselves, the visual communication between them and their worshippers is opened up – in contrast to the hearing of god’s word in the great book religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).

Sirhas, Male Mediums

The gods are not only present in the cult figures of these tribal Indian bronzes, but also in people, the sirhas, male mediums, or dancers, in a state of trance. One cannot decide to become a sirha, it is the deity who picks a medium. Upon being prompted by the believers, the god or goddess will take possession of the sirha. If a sirha is representing a female deity, he will wear a long dress and a colourful blouse decorated with cowries and mirrors.

The sirha of a male god will wear a hip cloth. He will hold attributes of the deity in his hands. If he is representing a wild and powerful goddess, the attribute is often a rope studded with nails which he will use to flagellate himself, or a trident which he uses to pierce his tongue. As he is possessed by the goddess, he is oblivious to pain.

In the Dandakaranya region, figures, jewellery and everyday items are not made by members of the tribal societies but by professional metal casters from the caste of the ghadvas. Using the wax-thread technique, the caster first forms the basic shape of the figurine in clay. He then carefully wraps a network of thin threads of beeswax made with a moulding press around the clay core. Individual parts such as the arms, feet, jewellery and weapons are separately formed in wax and attached to the figurine.

The artist then encases the entire figurine with a thick layer of clay, leaving an open sprue (casting channel). The materials used for casting are generally metals such as copper and zinc. The metal is heated to melting point in a fire which burns away the wax and the molten metal flows into the hollows left by the wax. Once it has cooled down the caster will smash the clay coating and engrave the figurine.

The Rietberg has received a series of tribal Indian bronzes starting in 2008 with a donation of more than 100 objects. The donors were Jean-Pierre Zehnder and his wife Dorothea. From 1989 to 1995 Zehnder was ambassador to India, where he acquired his collection. During that time the second donor, Janine Magnenat Ferguson, was also working at the Swiss Embassy in New Delhi and in 2009 she donated eight tribal bronzes. In 2010, another important donation of 93 Indian tribal bronzes was made by Hans and Heidi Kaufmann. Hans Kaufmann, who was also a diplomat, arrived in India in 1986.

Until 11 November at Museum Rietberg, Gablerstrasse 15, Zurich,