Poetry, Craft And Politics - A Picturesque Journey Through Two Dynasties That Enriched South India

·5-min read

Pallavas and Chalukyas: Coopetition in Stone, Gurpreet Chopra and Bharath, Notion Press

Capturing the essence and beauty of any aspect of Indian temples under a single theme is a daunting task. Many books attempt to narrow down their scope to a region, period, or empire to cover enough ground. First-time authors Gurpreet Chopra and Bharath take the approach of observing two kingdoms and their signatures in stone, side-by-side -- as captured succinctly in the title -- providing a fresh perspective on the richness of Pallava and Chalukya temples.

We often acknowledge cultural exchanges brought about by trade, friendly alliances, and diplomatic outreach but tend to overlook significant cultural influences of highly competitive neighbours even as they constantly try to outdo each other. In this aspect, the book is a primer on the era's history, offering quotes from contemporary literature and mythology, insights into inscriptions, and points of interest from noted historians on the subject. A history enthusiast might acknowledge the content as just the right amount of brevity for a coffee table book. Still, it offers a wholesome insight into the aesthetics and the sacred art of the era for a novice.

Accompanying the array of pictures are legends, poetry, mythology, and history to help us understand the inspiration behind the art. Scattered across the pages are verses from scriptures, devotional stotrams that reflect the emotional aspect of the sculptures, excerpts from the poetry of the likes of Jayadeva and Bilhana, giving us a real taste of the artistic inspiration that moved the sculptors. These are not tucked away in obscure passages but highlighted in coloured boxes, allowing us to enjoy the snippets even while casually browsing through the book.

The book traces the zeitgeist to offer us a peek into the sculptor's mind, to appreciate their mastery in the science of crafting but also to become aware of their refined grasp of poetry. This abundance of detail was a pleasant discovery for someone expecting - essentially - a picture book.

The study of temple towns of each kingdom neatly divides the book into two parts. The world-famous relic of Mahabalipuram and the ancient centre of learning, Kanchipuram represent the best of Pallava architecture, the pioneering cave temples and complexes of Badami and Aihole-Pattadakallu depict the Chalukyan heritage.

A few pages in, one begins to appreciate the vastness of the book's scope. While a comparative study of two kingdoms seemed like a refreshing take, you soon find out that taking a virtual stroll around Mahabalipuram alone absorbs your attention entirely. The pictures are exhaustive, and the detailed description is enough to make a travel-hungry reader determined to spend the next long holiday in these towns.

In addition, the lovely landscapes, close-ups of sculptures, often full-page photos help to admire details that a casual traveler ignores on a hasty picnic. Out of their ardent enthusiasm, the authors urge the reader to explore these places more deeply, not to miss out on little-known spots, guide you to take slow and deliberate steps, answering questions we didn't know to ask.

The images are arranged on 8”x11” glossy pages, bringing out the shapes, forms, and textures of the sculpture vividly. The soft orange background for the pictures complements the temples like the glow of sunset. The collection of images in certain sections is exhaustive.

Even if the authors had chosen to omit a few frames, it would have taken nothing away from the visual appeal or the experience. It might even have made the book easier to handle. At 386 pages, the hardcover calls for a slow read but feels a tad heavy for it. Alternatively, a larger format would have helped to slim it down and made the handling more comfortable. After all, one of the most defining features of a coffee table book is the tactile experience of shuffling the pages effortlessly as the eyes glide over the pictures.

The full-page spreads are beautiful and absorbing. Some of my favourites are the images of Pancha Rathas at Mahabalipuram shot in dappled light, the bas reliefs at Mahishasuramardini cave, the intricate wall panels at Kailasanathar temple, and the larger-than-life forms on the cave walls of Badami.

There are many more pictures that will draw the reader back, and a coffee table book is just the medium to engage with these images in a meaningful way, rather than scrolling over them, distracted by attention-grabbing bytes on the digital screen.

With the astounding number of images in the book, I'm surprised that visually soft images and smaller resolutions have made it to the final print. Understandably, some of those photos claim their place because of the historical and contextual value to the narrative.

However, the placement of photos as full-spread images when they lack enough resolution dampens the overall appeal. In some places, the book crosses over from an aesthetic experience to the realm of the didactic, with labels and arrows superimposed over the photos, in fonts that betray their Microsoft Office origin.

In its overall effect, the book is an excellent guide to a keen traveler -- without this book, one might completely miss the significance or the extraordinary value of the art. Even as the monuments prove their timelessness with their eternal presence, appreciating their meaning and depth needs an insight into the age they were born. This book is an excellent effort in bringing about this very appreciation.

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