Indian sculptors had mastered the bronze medium and the casting process as much as they had mastered terracotta sculpture and carving in stone. The cire-perdu or ‘lost wax’ process for casting was learned as long ago as the Indus Valley Culture. Along with it was discovered the process of making an alloy of metals by mixing copper, zinc, and tin which is called bronze.
Bronze sculptures and statuettes of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain icons have been discovered from many regions of India dating from the second century until the sixteenth century. Most of these were required for ritual worship and are characterized by exquisite beauty and aesthetic appeal. At the same time, the metal-casting process continued to be utilized for making articles for various purposes of daily use, such as utensils for cooking, eating, drinking, etc. Present-day tribal communities also utilize the ‘lost wax process for their artistic expressions.
Perhaps the ‘Dancing Girl’ in tribhanga posture from Mohenjodaro is the earliest bronze sculpture datable to 2500 BCE. The limbs and torso of this female figurine are simplified in tabular form. A similar group of bronze statuettes has been discovered on an archaeological excavation at Daimabad (Maharashtra) datable to 1500 BCE. Significant is the “Chariot”, the wheels of which are represented in simple circular shapes while the driver or human rider has been elongated, and the bulls in the forefront are modeled in sturdy forms.
Interesting images of Jain Tirthankaras have been discovered from Chausa, Bihar, belonging to the Kushana Period during the second century CE. These bronzes show how the Indian sculptors had mastered the modeling of the masculine human physique and simplified muscles. Remarkable is the depiction of Adinath or Vrishabhnath, who is identified with long hair locks dropping to his shoulders. Otherwise, the Tirthankaras are noted by their short curly hair.
Many standing Buddha images with a right hand in Abhaya mudra were cast in North India, particularly Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, during the Gupta and Post-Gupta periods, i.e., between the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries. The sanghati or the monk’s robe is wrapped to cover the shoulders which turns over the right arm, while the other end of the drapery is wrapped over the left arm. Eventually, the pleats are held by the extended hand of the same arm. The drapery falls and spreads into a wide curve at the level of the ankles. The Buddha’s figure is modeled in a subtle manner suggesting, at the same time, the thin quality of the cloth. The whole figure is treated with refinement; there is a certain delicacy in the treatment of the torso. In the typical bronze from Dhanesar Khera, Uttar Pradesh, the folds of the drapery are treated as in the Mathura style, i.e., in a series of drooping down curves. Sarnathstyle bronzes have foldless drapery. The outstanding example is that of the Buddha image at Sultanganj, Bihar, which is quite à monumental bronze figure. The typically refined style of these bronzes is the hallmark of the classical quality.
Vakataka bronze images of the Buddha from Phophnar, Maharashtra, are contemporary with the Gupta period bronzes. They show the influence of the Amaravati style of Andhra Pradesh in the third century CE and at the same time, there is a significant change in the draping style of the monk’s robe. Buddha’s right hand in Abhaya mudra is free so that the drapery clings to the right side of the body contour. The result is a continuous flowing line on this side of the figure. At the level of the ankles of the Buddha figure, the drapery makes a conspicuous curvilinear turn, as it is held by the left hand.
The additional importance of the Gupta and Vakataka bronzes is that they were portable and monks carried them from place to place for the purpose of individual worship or to be installed in Buddhist viharas. In this manner, the refined classical style spread to different parts of India and to Asian countries overseas. The hoard of bronzes discovered in Akota near Vadodara established that bronze casting was practiced in Gujarat or western India between the sixth and ninth centuries. Most of the images represent the Jaina Tirthankaras like Mahavira, Parshvanath, or Adinath. A new format was invented in which Tirthankaras are seated on a throne; they can be single or combined in a group of three or in a group of twenty-four Tirthankaras. Female images were also cast representing yakshinis or Shasanadevis of some prominent Tirthankaras. Stylistically they were influenced by the features of both the Gupta and the Vakataka period bronzes, Chakreshvari is the Shasanadevi of Adinath and Ambika is of Neminath.
Among the Pallava Period bronzes of the eighth century is the icon of Shiva seated in Ardhaparyanka asana (one leg kept dangling). The right hand is in the Achamana mudra gesture, suggesting that he is about to drink poison.