Sowparnika Balaswaminathan

Arts Research and Documentation

Grant Period: Over one year

This grant supports Chennai based independent researcher Sowparnika Balaswaminathan to investigate the reconstruction of the traditional art form of Swamimalai bronze casting by government institutions and the subsequent response of the community negotiating agential appropriation of the craft narrative.

Swamimalai is a town near Kumbakonam in Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu. It is known as the town of sculptors. The art of traditional bronze casting, in this town, dates back to the 9th Century AD, which received a major setback due to the political unrest in the 16th century in south India. This traditional craft was revived as part of the handicrafts revival movement spearheaded by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay in 1960s. In order to restore the art of bronze casting and save this tradition from extinction, the Government of India, started a sculpture school, ‘Art and Metal Institute’, affiliated with the state government’s handicrafts distribution institution at Poompuhar.  But around the institute, in their communities, the traditional bronze casting community continued to impart their knowledge to future generations through the traditional master-apprentice system of yesteryears. While the opening of the institute has paved way for everyone interested in learning the art of bronze casting to get trained, the traditional families strictly followed the hereditary rule and seldom included any person outside the clan to their workshops. Therefore, the government institution and the community of traditional sculptors side by side continued to run with a contrasting system of pedagogy, “which in turn is reflective of the differences in their conceptualisation of the art and tradition of bronze casting,” argues Sowparnika. The ones trained in these two systems are also named differently - the traditional bronze casting families in Swamimalai identify themselves as sthapathis and the sculptors who are trained in the government institute are called shilpis. However, it is interesting to note that these shilpis, also identify themselves as sthapathis.

A recent development has proved quite remarkable. Consequent to a change in management, the Poompuhar School has announced to review the sculpture course and change it from a class-based style to the gurukula style, similar to the approach used by traditional bronze casting families. Simultaneously, another event, a government sponsored sculpture apprenticeship programme is being organised at the most prominent traditional sculpting workshop meant for aspiring student-sculptors. 

For Sowparnika, this provides the ideal circumstances for a comparative study of how a traditional art is taught, learned, and perpetuated by governmental institutions in contrast to the systems followed by the arts community itself. The question central to this project that the researcher is aiming to build upon, is how a traditional art form is simultaneously appropriated and engendered by governmental institutions, and simultaneously, how the traditional craft community both capitalizes on the supportive aspects of governmental apparatus, and competes with it. By focusing on the individual sculptors, production, process and business methods, the researcher aims to acquire comprehensive information, the analysis of which will help her to understand the dynamics of this tradition within the government and the community spaces.

By combining art historical and anthropological methodologies, Sowparnika will first look at the available archival material at the Tamilnadu Archives in Chennai, to prepare her investigative directions which will form the foundation for her interviews later at Swamimalai. She will look at the material pertaining to the role of government institutions in the renewal of art traditions since the 1950s, and the quotidian workings of these organisations. She will further her enquiry through speaking to sthapathis and shilpis and will record the oral histories of the bronze casting industry starting from its heyday during the Chola period. She will also study the training process they undergo in learning the craft from their fathers and grandfathers. The researcher will then do a comparative analysis of the pedagogy, marketing and object design in government-trained sculptors and community-trained ones through participant observation and interviews both at training and production workshops.

Thus, the researcher will focus on unpacking the historical narratives of traditional practice and the differences and similitude these narratives unravel with particular reference to the individual agency that is exercised by the sculptors to foster concepts of selfhood and ownership of a tradition. The questions of authorship, authenticity, ideologies, aesthetics and needs of the market will be explored alongside deconstructing the meaning, source, validity and politics of the terms sthapathi and shilpi. The outcome of this grant will be a monograph-length essay. 

This grant was made possible with support from the Bajaj Group.