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A pair of identically carved and coloured wood-sculptures, brilliant examples of wood carvings used since generations in South Indian temples both as architectural components – structural units or decorative artefacts, as well as parts of the temple imagery, represent peacock, India’s most beautiful dancing bird. Besides representing colours, beauty and music peacock, known to dance fully enthused when the sky bursts with first clouds inspiring the earth to burst with new shoots, and the man’s mind, with hopes and delight, manifests the spirit of India’s culture; and hence, the nation has most appropriately elevated it to the status of the national bird. Exceptionally sensitive to beauty the peacock dances to a sky covered with clouds, in evenings when neither the sun is parching, nor darkness, impenetrable; and preferably in suburbs, neither too far from man’s world nor his world’s rustle and bustle allowed to reach them.
In constructing wooden interiors in South, or in Himalayan region, or any belt where timber has been the usual medium of constructing a building, lions, elephants, peacocks, or the mythical Yalis were the most preferred figures for brackets to support on them the projecting eaves or balconies. The 7th century Bhramaur Devi temple and the eighteenth century Shiva temple at Chhatrari in Chamba district and Nagar castle at Nagar in Kullu district, are some of the early sites in Himachal to use such brackets with these animal figures. However, a delicate bird always held in great reverence and with its divine connections peacock sculptures were used more often either as decorative artefact or as part of the divine imagery. Identically carved with equal height these two wood-carvings are meant obviously to be used as a pair but with such elevated pedestal, overall modelling and delicate apexes not appropriate for holding a plank on them these could hardly be the base to hold any projection on them. It seems the birds’ pair is meant to define the right and left arms of the deity’s throne in a domestic shrine. In similar arrangement the wood-pieces might be used on the right and the left of any artistic display.
These peacock figures have been sculpted out of fine Bangai wood, a regional variety of timber found around Karakorchi region near Chennai in Tamil Nadu. Bangai has been in use for temple wood carving since generations and being strangely capable of fine details is largely the means of these wood statues’ rare distinction. A less fibrous texture Bangai, yielding an even and smooth surface, accepts a colour without taking away its basic tone and lustre as most other timbers do. Moth resistant and unaffected by climatic changes Bangai is the most ideal wood for carving statues and other artefacts. Apart a wood of rare class, peacock itself is a motif with divine links. Though the known Ashokan pillars do not have peacock capital some historians contend that peacock figure comprised arms of the Mauryan throne. However, as suggests printed motifs on costumes of figures in Ajanta murals and decorative panels, peacock was universally hailed for its beauty and auspiciousness by the fifth-sixth century if not before. In Puranas peacock was revered as the mount of Karttikeya, Shiva’s elder son, and as crest in Krishna’s crown. In the entire tradition ever since artists reproduced peacock as representing beauty and harbingering good.
Though decorative artefacts usable for adorning a sitting hall, the pair of peacock statues raised over tall platforms consisting of conventionalised lotus motifs seems to have been conceived pursuing the model of brackets actually used in medieval temples, palaces or mansions, especially in structuring their wooden interiors. Creation of fancy with their length condensed, and height, enhanced, the figures of the bird have been modelled like a pair of play-things. The artist has wondrously translated the bird’s innocent bearing for which the peacock is known on its face, especially in its eyes and posture of beak. Peacock is a crested bird but in these statues the crests are more prominent, and besides, it has around its ankles a decorative ring as its ornament. Peacocks have most colourful and lustrous tails that the wood-carver has reproduced in his own idiom. For him the bird’s anatomy seems to consist, except its face, beak and large open eyes, mainly of feathers which are also the source of their beauty.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.