Hindu Gods Are Heavenly

Article excerpt

Byline: MARK HUDSON

Chola: Sacred Bronzes Of Southern India

Royal Academy, London

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What does God look like?

That's a question that has perplexed the monotheistic religions of the West for millennia, from the medieval Christian idea of a grouchy old man in the sky to the strictures of Judaism and Islam which forbid the representation of just about everything, let alone the face of the divine.

But go to India, or rather go to this magical little exhibition, and the issue doesn't seem problematic at all. The Hindu gods and goddesses - and there are many of them - look just like us, only more graceful, longer-limbed and, let's face it, altogether sexier.

Concentrating on the medieval period when the Chola dynasty ruled southern India, this exhibition presents bronze images of 30 or so deities, many of them 1,000 years old, all in the burnished near-buff and flaunting a pneumatic elegance that gives startling new meaning to the term 'heavenly bodies'.

While there is, of course, no shortage of erotic feeling in Christian art, from Botticelli to Rembrandt, it is fairly covert. But the conflict between sensuality and spirituality that has been such a persistent theme in Western culture seems barely to have registered on the Hindu radar. These gods get up to everything that their worshippers do, and with a guiltless, athletic abandon that can make the mind boggle.

But don't expect anything vulgar-let alone explicit, at the Royal Academy: the exuberant, gravitydefying couplings that adorn many Hindu temples aren't represented.

For the anonymous bronze-casters of the Chola period, it was all in the posture; in the serpentine twist of chests, hips and legs, and the inscrutable half-smiles. While there are plenty of melon-like mammaries, it's the sumptuous, hypnotic flow of lines and forms that gets under your skin. …