Art Historian Andrew Cohen Gave Nolamba Art Its Place Under the Sun

Andrew Cohen had chosen Nolamba art for his dissertation and on hindsight it may appear that Bhairava was his guiding force, a force that pulled him to a country thousands of miles away that had still not been visited by the comforts of western living or at least the remote hamlets were still living a pristine ‘Indian’ life!

Nolambas Art had for long been ignored by the Art historians. It was either clubbed with Gangas and passed off as Ganga Nolamba or dismissed as an off shoot of the Chalukyas, Pallavas or Cholas. The Cholas had carted away 44 pillars from Hemavathi which bolster the temple at Tiruvaivaru, and had adorned the Vimana of Brihadeshwara at Tanjore and a Shivalaya in Kanchi with the pierced windows from the temples at Hemavathi.

Art historians were silent about this until Andrew Cohen seeking to correct the perceptions about Nolamba Art through his intensive field work and a new methodology that questioned existing practices. The PhD. led to his book -Temple Architecture and Sculpture of the Nolambas, and many articles on Nolamba Art.
The Nolambas are alive in the collective memory of the region. It is the Nolambas one hears while journeying from Bargur to Hemamavthi. The Bargur Shiva has been in worship for the last one thousand years. People speak of Nolambas as if they are their own, their benefactors and protectors. They were the ones who gave them Hanjareshwara – their Appa, their protector and many worship him as “Manedevaru’’.

The Nolamba name is alive and many members from the Nolamba Lingayat community write to Andrew Cohen thanking him for his seminal work.
In a series of mails Professor Andrew Cohen shared his passion for Nolamba art, anecdotes on working in the Nolamba region and his quest for a methodology that brought out the relevance of art created at the behest of smaller dynasties.


Nolamba pillars at Siddeswara Temple Complex, Hemavati by Jay Shankar

What do you have to say about the sacredness of Indian art?

India has a deep, rich, intense tradition of sacred art. If aesthetics was my primary focus, Japan would be on top of my list. But for me, the religious traditions of India are too compelling. The stories carved on temple walls tell of human needs, both spiritual and psychological.

Apart from the academic interest what is the emotional connect with Nolamba sculptures? Can you please share some memories of working on site at Nandi, Avani, Hemavathi, Dharmapuri, Arlaguppe? What has been the most satisfying moment of your time spent in Nolambavaadi?

Fieldwork was difficult, but ultimately it was a rewarding experience. I am proud of the results; people now know about the Nolamba monuments. When I started Nolambas were hardly recognized, and their temples were usually called Chalukya or Chola. Now most scholars accept that Nolambas were a distinct contributor to Indian art history.

During the mid-1980s when I did this fieldwork, it was quite difficult to get to the remote villages. As I tell my students, I wanted to subtitle my book ‘or, the buses I have been on’ and write a chapter on the travels. Anyone who has travelled to remote areas, especially during the 1980s, knows how crowded buses were; I remember once having a goat between my legs and a baby leaning on my shoulders. And buses often broke down during most trips.

Hemavati, AP., though the capital of the Nolambas, was a small village and I had to take unreliable buses to reach there. There were no facilities in Hemavati, so I had to sleep at the Siddesvara temple. At first, I slept on the porch directly in front of the entrance and woke up to the priest waking up Henjerappa. It was too intense of an experience to have Henjerappa (Bhairava) staring at me as my first morning sight, so I moved further away!

Henjerappa at Hemavathi Photo Credit Andrew Cohen

I hardly ate. It was very hot. My research required that I spend lots of time there, so I had to go back and forth quite a few times. People were nice to me. There were so many sculptures and temples laying around neglected. After going there a few years, they added a site museum to preserve the sculptures better. This was in the days of analogue photography, so I had to photograph everything with film. Most everything I photographed twice, once in B&W film, once as color slides. And, of course, I took detailed notes. I went to many remote villages, more than the ones in my book, to check if there were Nolamba ruins laying around. At the time I was young and able to do the rigorous fieldwork, but it was, at times, exhausting. I went to lots of Ganga dynasty temples as well to study the differences. Once after a long day hiking along trails to different villages, at dusk a local man who helped us around stopped us quickly. At first, I didn’t see anything, though with his guidance I saw the cobra in front of us!

At Aralaguppe, the Kallesvara temple has the exquisite Natesa and Astadikpala ceiling panels. Before my work this temple had lots of different labels, though now I think my argument that it is a Nolamba period temple is generally accepted.

Natesa at Aralaguppe Ceiling, Photo credit Andrew Cohen

A funny thing happened at this temple. As I always did, I photographed the panels in B&W and colour slides. The slides were too expensive to develop in India, so I waited to get home for them. The photographer at the Mysore Archaeology office processed the black and white film. He came back to me and said none of photos came out, the film was blank. He laughed and said the same thing happened to him at the Kallesvara temple earlier. Months later I went back to Aralaguppe, did puja to ask Siva for permission to photograph, and that time they all developed correctly.

Bhoganandisvara Temple, Photo Credit Jay Shankar

I often visited the Bhoganandisvara complex at Nandi village because the most elaborate and refined of Nolamba period temple is located there. Over the centuries this complex had been expanded. The main temple is the Bhoganandisvara and adjacent to it is the Arunacalesvara. Other additions have been built around them. The Bhoganandisvara is still in worship—the head priest speaks Kannada only, but he calls me ‘Chicago’ and, after not seeing me for years, greeted me as such. He was very helpful and arranged for a ladder for me to walk along the roof to closely inspect all the imagery on the superstructure. Once while on the roof, a monkey tried to steal my camera bag! This site was one of my most satisfying.

The Bhoganandisvara and Arunacalesvara vimana (superstructures) looks similar, except some stucco images on the latter. All prior reports on these temples repeated basically the same description. After studying them carefully I realized they were the same in iconography and placement but the Arunacalesvara superstructure was rebuilt to look like the Bhoganandisvara probably six centuries later, during the Vijayanagara period. The two temples were originally built contemporaneously. At some point the Arunacalesvara vimana must have collapsed; the interior has later replacement pillars, and the vimana was rebuilt to look exactly like the Bhoganandisvara! This is highly unusual. Careful study of the motifs reveals the disparities in mannerism. It was gratifying to realize this. It wasn’t apparent. It took me years of looking at the temples and the photographs to finally reach this conclusion.

For more on this see:

At Avani there is another complex of temples, some of which date from Nolamba period. Here I discuss the Laksmanesvara temple by tying together the wall imagery. One sculpture is identified by inscription as the religious leader Tribhuvanadevam. Another image appears to be the King Vira Nolamba (Anniga), both are inscribed at the front of the temple. Though speculative, I explain how I think this temple imagery which integrates prominently victorious four-armed Devis with the king and guru as aid and protection for the Nolamba king. Yes, she is an imposing Durga image and originally from Avani. I discuss her in context of the Laksmanesvara temple, which is filled with powerful Devi imagery. This temple’s iconographic scheme explains the needs for rituals by kinship through the agency of priests. Back in 1916 H. Krishna Sastri, in his book South Indian Images of Gods and Goddesses, said this image was locally called ‘Mutyalamma’ (‘the pearl-like mother’). Because of that, in my book, I discuss how this image might maintain a local tutelary function, yet in appearance looks like the Puranic Durga who conquers all opponents.

Lakshmanesvara Temple Avani

Just like Henjerappa, who I discuss as a living and vital part of Nolamba polity and religion, this Devi functioned as protector for the locality and to the overlord.
For fuller explanation on this see:

Why did you choose Nolambas especially when Chalukyas, Hoyasalas, Cholas and Pallavas were much more researched and written about?

I chose Nolambas for my University of Chicago dissertation because those other dynasties you list were studied extensively. When I started in the 1980s, Nolambas had not been studied except for two brief books, one by Barrett (1958) and the other by Sivaramamurthi (1964). Neither went into much depth, though they were helpful for publishing some images of Nolamba monuments. M.S. Krishnamurthy wrote a dynastic history in 1980, and Nolambas received scant mention in miscellaneous articles. This presented me with a fertile new topic to explore.

Where did you first encounter a Nolamba piece of art?

The Madras Government Museum (now called Government Museum, Chennai) houses a group of sculptures taken from Hemavati. These are the sculptures discussed in Sivaramamurthi’s book, so I had seen them earlier in print. But I was surprised how impressive I found them; it was ‘love at first sight’! During this first exposure I didn’t question Sivaramamurthi’s method of seeing Chalukya, Pallava, Chola or Rastrakuta traits mixed into these sculptures labelled ‘Nolamba’ and immediately started to look for these idioms. It left me unsettled, even bewildered, though only after doing extensive fieldwork did my methodological questions form. I was convinced that a different model was required.

One thing at the Madras Museum struck that me as odd was that the Nolamba sculptures were grouped together in a prominent first floor space, but maybe the most impressive of the Madras images, the ‘Kali’, was in a neglected corner on the 2nd floor.

Why have you been critical of Western approach to Indology and Indian Art History? Has there been a change in approach to studies in Indology? What has been the reasons for the shift in recent times?

Art history is inherently a Eurocentric discipline, at least in the early stages of the field. Most students first are exposed to art history through the basic Western art history surveys, which elevate Western philosophy and history above all others. How the surveys are taught, thankfully, have changed somewhat. There is more global inclusion yet Western art remains paramount.

As I have argued in my book and the article “Why a History of Monuments from Nolambavadi,” the predominant normative model for world art assumes Italian Renaissance represents the standard from which to judge art; it should be balanced, proportional, rational, and scientific. All these attributes are often considered masculine, as well. These, of course, are dated ideas, and not so much an issue currently. However, my point is that early Colonial versions of Indian art history contained this bias. In some form this paradigm is embedded, though in more subtle and diffused thought, through to the late-twentieth century and has impacted South Asian art history discussions.

Site museum where fallen icons are displayed. Photo by Aparna Misra

Adjacent to that is the histories of polity that elevated and focused mostly on hegemonic dynasties. Lesser dynasties are discussed as minor subordinates, allies or foes in wars, with little significance. This model, too, was embedded with Western thought and was engrained into ways of discussing India. Today this is mostly dismissed. Ron Inden’s critique of Indology studies in Imagining India (1990) was helpful to me, as well as his discussion on the Rastrakutas. I was fortunate to know Ron in Chicago and benefitted from discussions that contributed to my formative thoughts on Nolambas before his publication. He argued against essentialism and replaced it with human agencies which are complex and shifting. This helped me in seeing Nolamba polity in a dialectics of shifting roles internally and externally. Two other studies that helped me question conventional studies were Burton Stein’s (1980) and Nicholas Dirks’ (1987). Also, in India during this time of questioning Indological assumptions there was a group of major scholars associated with the Subaltern Studies doing important work. From the 1980s onward Indology studies shifted away from conventional models. However, Indian art historical studies at the time were slower to integrate changing thought, and I had little to help me in formulating an alternative model for discussing Nolamba monuments.

What was your approach in studying Nolamba art? What influenced your work?

I just mentioned historians who gave me a glimpse towards how to rethink dynastic polity. Within art historical discourse I did not see many helpful models. Most studies were based on the conventional historical paradigms. They focused mostly on major dynasties, which goes back to your earlier statement that Chalukyas, Pallava, and Hoysalas were more studied and why didn’t I work on them. These studies repeated embedded polity assumptions, then went on to discuss dynastic styles—style, the area that art historians feel is our prerogative! But so much of it was descriptive with the obsessive quest for finding ‘influences’, as if a motif origin explained something. An important disruption to the obsession with finding influences comes from an article by Gary Tartakov and Vidya Dehejia (1984). To me it was helpful and my subsequent discussions with Gary were formative. I tested some of my thoughts on Gary, and he helped tweak and bring clarity. Meanwhile, Pramod Chandra (1983) wrote an essay advocating for a shift away from dynastic to regional labelling. He left it to others to figure out how to do this, but his voice was impossible to ignore. (He taught at the University of Chicago but left a year before I arrived and went off to Harvard.) Thanks to Pramod, who said look at monuments regionally (over dynastically), and Gary, who said look closely at the image not at the ‘influences’, I had a foundation upon which to start.

Further, no scholar is an island; I’m indebted to many others. Carol Bolon was my dissertation advisor and an important scholar on Calukyas. (Gary also did Calukyas.) Mike Rabe’s work on Pallavas was helpful, as was the work of many other scholars. Even the older conventional scholars I criticized in my book, such as Sivaramamurti, I respect. In the context of his time he was following traditional art historical practice. My criticism of him is focused on his method. Like many other art historians who explained motifs based on influences it was misleading, at times lazy work. This is especially seen when he discusses an image as a product of influences, and some of the ‘influences’ post-dated the image under discussion. As I noted in my book, in a question I intended to be humorous, his description of a particular image’s hair left me wondering if it was ‘a Pallava-Chola-Chalukya-Rastrakuta’ hairstyle?
All this led to my thinking about centrality and periphery in Indian art historical studies. I had hoped, and succeeded in some ways, for my method to allow lesser known periods of Indian art to be researched. In fact, this thinking about centrality and periphery was a natural foundation for me to move into my interest and study of contemporary Indian art.

Andrew Cohen with Ganga at Hemavathi Photo courtesy Andrew Cohen

How did the journey begin in the Nolamba vaadi? How did you prepare yourself with regards to sources, language and living in a different cultural landscape?

I was fortunate to study at University of Chicago, one of the premier centers for South Asian studies, not only because of the esteemed faculty, but because it has a comprehensive research library. Before fieldwork I painstakingly went through Annual Report of Indian Epigraphy (1887 onwards), Annual Report of Mysore Archaeological Survey (1906-56), Epigraphica Carnatica (1889-1955), Epigraphica Indica (1892 onwards) and other related reports. You must give the British the credit, they liked their reports. These are the primary sources on which I have based my Nolamba study. There are many inscriptions from Nolamba period, many are hero stones. With a list of them I went to many villages in search of Nolamba remains, but usually they didn’t have images. Hero stones commemorate death of a ‘hero’ in battle, often in defence of the village’s cattle.

I studied Sanskrit at Chicago, but was far from being proficient, as I am not a good language person. Living in Mysore, on and off for almost three years during fieldwork, I learned some Kannada—or baby Kannada—it helped that I could read it and was at least able to identify places. A friend in Mysore threatened to only talk to me in Kannada, but he gave up on that after a couple days. I picked up a little Hindi. When in Hemavati I was asked a question in Telugu, sort of understood, and replied in broken Kannada/Hindi/English. During my travels I was amazed by how villagers were able to put a few languages together and still communicate. At first, I tried to do some fieldwork by myself, but it was too difficult going to remote places. I had to have an assistant.

Icon lying in the fields. Photo by Andrew Cohen

Before deciding on Nolambas, I made a couple trips to India for preliminary research. One of my first stays was at Hampi. There I met George Michell, another art historian I benefited from knowing. Later Chalukya temples were of interest to me, from Hampi I visited quite a few Later Chalukyan monuments though didn’t follow-up as a full study. I’m glad Ajay Sinha did a good study of them. By the way, in the 11th century, when the Nolambas where weakened by the Cholas, they became feudatories of Later Chalukyas through a marriage alliance, and I think artisans versed in Hemavati tradition migrated to the Bellary district and contributed to these Chalukyan temples.

What were the unique factors that determined the distinct Nolambic traits? How was their art an appropriate expression of their own local circumstances?

In my writings maybe I over emphasize that there are distinct Nolamba traits. Remember I was paving a direction away from the incessant influence obsessive manner of describing monuments. My point now seems obvious: the ‘style’ wasn’t a commingling of dominant dynastic influences, but a locally produced idiom that had context within the Nolamba period.

Henjerappa is a good example. As a style it doesn’t look like Chalukya or Pallava or Chola. It is not indebted to any of those or other periods. To describe him that way is harmful, it negates Henjerappa’s function.

Pic by Jay Shankar

Indeed, he is an imposing image (152 centimetres high) and a masterpiece of Nolambavadi. More importantly, I argue, he probably was the royal deity, a protector, to the Nolamba kings and realm. Using epigraphic evidence, I suggest the Pasupatas or Kalamukhas were present and performed ritual maintenance of royal monuments. That certainly makes him an appropriate expression of local circumstances. Correct? The fact that this Bhairava is enshrined in this locality today suggest to me his continued status as almost all other temples locally have lingas enshrined !

How else can you label Nolamba art?

I hope I’ve not implied that there is another way. My study is regional, which is why I break my discussion into three loosely defined idioms based on locality and appearance - Central Nolambavadi, Eastern Nolambavadi and Southern Nolambavadi. They share characteristics throughout but show local idiomatic traits.

My study isn’t restricted, however, to style. Kingship and rituals have function within the realm. Temples had vital roles. They are and should be labelled Nolamba, the monuments had meaning and context within Nolambavadi. However, there are limits to how much we know about how Nolamba period monuments functioned.
For example, undeniably Chola temples and bronzes can be called aesthetically pleasing. Evidentially when produced this beauty was desired, but the temples and bronzes weren’t made just to be pretty. Temples had a function within Cholamandalam and that included religious rituals, kingship and other concerned agencies. We have no problem labelling this as Chola art.

What was the response of Indian scholars and your interactions with them? Your study challenged the existing notions about Nolamba sculpture. How was your study received in the academic circles?

Interesting question. If I’ve created a stir, I’ve not heard it. From India I have received positive feedback and maybe it has opened the door for new directions in regional studies. Recently someone from Bangalore told me he is writing about the Nolambas in Kannada; when I questioned if it expands beyond monuments I wrote about, he responded no. Just now I Googled Nolambas and received 26,200 results! I’m not sure what to make of that. I hope others have found my centrality and periphery thoughts helpful and have been able to apply them to new studies. I don’t think the old influence driven; descriptive art historical model is popular today.
After my Nolamba study, I organized and published an Art Journal (1999) volume on contemporary Indian art. Because this was published by the College Art Association, it had wide distribution. Timely, Indian contemporary art was starting to become known globally, though often (once again) filtered through Western discourse. Since 2000 in the USA, I think, more young scholars have shifted their attention towards contemporary or post-Colonial issues.

Why do students want to study Indian art in the US, what is the connect?

We need to learn about diverse traditions and thought systems to understand our global connections. When I teach the Asian survey, we discuss Buddhism from India onwards. Students need to be exposed to this way of thinking; some connect and learn from it, others not so much. After teaching for a long time, it is apparent that lectures and class discussions might not have immediate results. Sometimes it is years later that I might hear back from a student who says thinking about Buddhism has been meaningful to her/his life. The spiritual traditions of India offer an option. Hatha yoga is very popular in the West. For some it leads to deeper meditative practices. On a practical level, students are enriched by seeing Indian art history.

What are you currently working on?

After 30 years of university teaching, with 18 of them serving as department chair at three different universities, the last 12 years at Monmouth University in New Jersey, I retired this year. I taught thousands of students about Indian and Asian art history. I’ve done my job.
While serving as chair much of my time was occupied with endless administrative duties, leaving less time for research. However, it gave me the luxury to pursue another creative path—one that started while doing Nolamba fieldwork—photography. That is what I am doing now.

When was the last time you visited India? What memories you carry of the land and the people?

During my fieldwork I met many villagers who live simply but were helpful when possible. This is not to say that there were no problems. At times various types of officials tried to obstruct my work, but they aren’t important nor memorable. Many scholars were supportive, though most of them told me to follow Sivaramamurthi’s method and look for influences in Nolamba art. While living in Mysore I had good friends. My fellow Nolamba scholar M.S. Krishna Murthy rented to me a house for a year in his compound. His family often had me over for meals. Later, while researching contemporary art I enjoyed meeting a new generation of artists breaking into new directions. Some of them are now big international stars!
While India is deeply important to me, after all I had many life changing experiences there, I’ve not been back for a decade. With my wife, who is originally from Vietnam, I have travelled a lot in Vietnam, Cambodia and Japan the past decade. These are regions I like to photograph. My wife did travel to India twice with me, where she was better at bargaining with merchants than I.