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Permanent Collection: Asian Art:
Dancing Balakrishna or Saint Sambandar

Dancing Balakrishna or Saint Sambandar

India, Tamil, Nadu. Late Chola Dynasty, late 13th-14th centuries. Bronze. 2001.1.3. Ester R. Portnow Collection of Asian Art, a Gift of the Nathan Rubin-Ida Ladd Family Foundation.

The Chola Dynasty was one of the great Southern kingdoms, extending as far north as the Ganges, and as far south as Sri Lanka and as far east as Myanmar. Its sculpture was known for its attention to the human form and its dynamic suggestions of bodily movement. Chola bronzes are considered to represent some of the greatest bronze casting ever done.

This figure's large almond eyes, dangling earrings, and elaborate topknot signify spiritual advancement as well as a kind of playful seductiveness. The child is shown here dancing gracefully with his leg raised in diagonal balance with his outstretched arm.

There is an unusual cross-over between the two figures of Krishna and Sambandar which make this statue difficult to identify conclusively. Both Krishna (A Vaishnava God) and Sambandar (a Shaiva saint) showed remarkable characteristics in childhood. The child Krishna stole the butter from his household. When his mother Yasodhara caught him, she opened his mouth to find the butter and saw the entire universe, twinkling inside. Similarly, Sambandar was left alone by his father in a temple courtyard, and was fed milk by none other than the goddess Parvati herself. When asked by his father who fed him, he pointed to the sky, the abode of the gods. Sambandar is traditionally pointing to the sky as a gesture of his deep spiritual knowledge of the universe.

Worshippers would find this delightful image of a dancing, divinely-inspired child in a home or in a small niche in a Chola Dynasty temple. They would, of course, be reminded of either Balakrishna or Sambandar's unusual childhoods. But they would also know the other aspects of their stories, which hint at powers of cosmic transformation.

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