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resizedBalaji photoIndia_-_Mamallapuram_-_030_-_Arjunas_Penance_Bas_Relief_(490988077)

By Sharon St Joan

 

The identity of one of the greatest artists of all time has long been a mystery – until now.

 

Carved into a monumental rock, the Descent of the Ganges stands at the site known as Mahabalipuram, built during the seventh and eighth centuries CE, on the Indian coast of the Bay of Bengal. It is among the most astonishing works of art ever created anywhere in the world.

 

Yet no one knew who the artist was who created this extraordinary work. Until now.

 

Balaji feb 2 2018. shphoto

 

On January 11, 2018, at the Indological Centre of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, Dr. G. Balaji announced at a press meeting a remarkable discovery – the identity of the chief sculptor and architect, whose name was Kevata Peruntachan.

 

The Descent of the Ganges is one of the 400 ancient monuments at Mahabalipuram that stand as witnesses to a time when gods and heroes must have been closer to the earth than they are now. The artwork is simple, elegant, and profound, created in the style of the Pallava kings who ruled at that time.

 

96 feet long and 43 feet high, the Descent of the Ganges, also known by its other name, Arjuna’s Penance – was sculpted out of one single monolith, a giant rock.

 

During the reigns of other dynasties such as the Chollas and the Vijayanagaras, sculptors often tucked a little self-portrait of themselves into a corner of their work, but this seemed not to have been the case at Mahabalipuram.

 

Still, Dr. Balaji, a scholar with the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, who has visited and studied this monument for decades, always had a dream that he might someday identify the architect and sculptor. The nagging thought of who this person may have been returned to him over and over again over several years – it haunted him.

 

The land around Mahabalipuram is mostly flat land along the seacoast. Rock outcrops which became vast carved monoliths rise up out of the sand.

 

 

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Dr. Balaji pondered for many years, seeking the identity of the chief architect, and eventually was drawn to a series of figures to the left of the figure believed to be the great hero, Arjuna. Among these figures, one can see a man holding a chisel in his left hand. He wears a headdress and also a decorative sword, which indicate that he was a highly-skilled person of some standing – not just one of hundreds of sculptors, but in fact, as it dawned on Dr. Balaji, only this one, out of all the sculpted figures along the wall, could have been the chief sculptor and architect.

 

At a nearby village is a place called Nondivirappan Kudiraittoti where are found a list of names which scholars have long surmised might be the names of the Mahabalipuram sculptors. The name of one of them, Kevata Peruntachan, means “stone mason,” and his last name, Peruntachan means “chief architect.”

 

Putting all this together, Dr. Balaji was now confident that the long-lost chief sculptor of the Descent of the Ganges – one of the greatest artists of all time — had at last been found. Kevata Peruntachan has re-appeared to take his rightful place in history.

 

Most of the figures of the Descent of the Ganges, sculpted on the rock, come from the world of nature. They are animals, plants, and heavenly beings portrayed with great sensitivity.

 

Towering in the foreground are wonderful, life-like and life-sized, elephants. Nearby, a family of stone monkeys is preening each other. A mother cow licks her calf. A cat stretches her front paws up to heaven. All are shown with reverence and affection.

 

Clearly, this is an artist who deserves to live on in the memories of all those who stand in awe at the feet of his eternal sculptures — among the greatest works of art ever created.

 

Dr. Balaji enjoys bringing the past alive – for students and for so many others whose lives are enriched by a deeper perspective of centuries gone by.

 

Dr. Balaji grew up in Chennai. With his keen interest in history, he looked into his own family background, and he discovered a long legacy of cloth-making. Around a hundred and fifty years ago, during the reign of the Nayak kings, a cloth trading community migrated south and moved into a western section of Chennai (then Madras), settling in the Egmore area. The British colonial rulers needed local people to manufacture and sell cloth. A fort in that area later became the famous Egmore Railway Station. Dr. Balaji has early memories of his father trading in cloth.

 

Ever fascinated by the past, Dr. Balaji was drawn to a different path in life – to re-awaken and bring to light amazing vistas of Indian art, culture, archeology, and history.

A prolific writer, he is author of several books and many articles. One of his books, TRIBES OF NILGIRIS – Arts & Crafts of the Kotas, Kurumbas, Irulas & Paniyas shines a light on four of the oldest tribes in south India and is a tribute to the diverse traditions that make up the great nation of India.

At the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, Dr. Balaji’s quest for understanding continues to unfold, as he uncovers for the world the rich, myriad strands of Indian civilization.

 

Photos:

Top Photo: Dr. G. Balaji / Mahabalipuram

Second photo: Sharon St Joan / Dr. G. Balaji

Third Photo: Dr. G. Balaji / detail of Mahabalipuram showing the head sculptor and architect, with the chisel in his left hand.

 

© Forest Voices of India, 2018

 

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