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Historians of South Asian art and culture often use models of dynastic patronage and stylistic influence as tools to evaluate the wealth of artistic material that populates India’s countryside and museums. In his new book, Andrew L. Cohen critically wrestles with these models, revealing their weaknesses in addressing material that defies their pre-conceived frameworks. Cohen’s examination of the southern Nolamba kingdom published in Temple Architecture and Sculpture of the Nolambas: Ninth-Tenth Centuries provides an excellent case study to challenge the appropriateness of categories like regional and dynastic style.
The Nolambas were a relatively small South Indian kingdom whose political influence extended from the territory surrounding their capital city of Hemavati in a broad swath from the southwest and to the southeast, incorporating portions of modern eastern Karnataka, western Andhra Pradesh, and northern Tamil Nadu. Readers not familiar with India or the Nolamba region may not recognize the logistical effort that this project entailed. Unlike many of the better-known-and-studied kingdoms—which ruled areas that have remained urban centers—the remnants of the Nolamba capital of Hemavati reside in a small village. All of the Nolamba monuments examined in this study range across a large geographical area that is equally rural and difficult to access. Few facilities or accommodations are available near these sites, often forcing Cohen to camp at the monuments, revealing his persistence and dedication as a researcher. His commendable efforts have paid off. Temple Architecture and Sculpture of the Nolambas affords the reader a comprehensive introduction to Nolamba monuments and their unique stylistic and iconographic characteristics, bringing attention to a body of material that few scholars and visitors have seen.
Cohen’s history of the Nolamba kingdom and its art is a revisionist history. Cohen takes a position against art historians who claim that the short-lived dynasty (which flourished from the eighth through the eleventh centuries) produced artistic hybrids that were inspired by larger, more powerful neighboring dynasties such as the Pallavas, the Cholas, and the Chalukyas. He argues that the traditional dynastic model for interpreting Indic art history assumes that “the larger the dynasty, the [more] it asserts a stronger artistic influence over others” (13). Cohen believes that this model of influence inadequately explains Nolamba art. With his monographic presentation of Nolamba monuments, and the methodological questions he raises while sifting through the flawed historiography of Nolamba literature, Cohen succeeds in claiming autonomy for Nolamba art and in wresting legitimacy from the dynastic model of Indic art history.
After beginning his study with a standard review of previous literature, Cohen presents a comprehensive history of the Nolamba lineage through a survey of inscriptional material. He also attempts to clarify questions regarding Nolamba genealogy created by inconsistencies in the epigraphic record. This is best illustrated in the case of the succession of Viramendra to Iriva Nolamba (II) in the eleventh century C.E. Cohen makes another important contribution to Nolamba historical and epigraphic studies by publishing a new translation of the inscription from the Bhoganandisvara Compound at Nandi.
Chapters three, four, and five undertake a detailed documentation and analysis of Nolamba-attributed monuments in and around the capital of Hemavati, as well as in the eastern and southern reaches of Nolamba territory, respectively. Cohen’s treatment of Nolamba material is further organized into accounts of individual temples and sculptural remains. The author systematically addresses figural and ornamental sculptures of Nolamba temples in terms of interior and exterior programs, niche figures and attendants, pillars, and ceiling reliefs. This dense, scientific description of the Nolamba monuments is necessary since no other published source has analyzed as many Nolamba temples or discussed them in such detail. Cohen’s work provides a solid foundation upon which further research on Nolamba figural and temple arts, patronage, and iconography can build.
For many readers, Cohen’s greatest contribution will be his challenge of traditional assumptions regarding dynastic style and influence. Cohen’s methodological critique propels his study beyond the realm of the traditional art historical monograph, and would be a very important study in its own right. Cohen begins his introduction stating that he had expected influence from larger neighboring kingdoms to account for the stylistic character of Nolamba temples and sculpture (13). However, after examining Nolamba monuments and previous scholarship, the author realizes that the difficulties in studying Nolamba art do not rise from the monuments themselves, but to flawed historical models that are applied to it.
At the root of this problem is the dynastic model, used by historians of many cultures and disciplines to associate works created during a specific period or within a limited region to a corresponding sovereign or kingdom. The dynastic model certainly has its values, especially when studying the direct patronage of a monument or style by a given ruler. Cohen, after all, is working within the dynastic framework in this study. However, the generalization of this model, can lead to gross misinterpretations of political history as well as of artistic style and influence. Cohen questions the traditional conception of kingdoms as monolithic cultural institutions whose ideologies and artistic tastes were evenly distributed across their territories. He is swayed by more recent historical models proposed by Burton Stein, Ronald Inden, and Nicholas Dirks (15-16). These authors portray kingdoms as having fluid borders and fluctuating authority. In this revision of the dynastic model, kingdoms are malleable, responding dialectically to external influences and their own constituents.
Cohen must not only redefine his dynastic model but also conceptually distance the Nolambas from their larger neighbors, the Pallavas, Chalukyas, and Rastrakutas. Throughout his study, he asserts that the Nolamba monuments are not just peripheral to other kingdoms but are an autonomous polity with their own aesthetic interests. Cohen fights the history of scholarship that treats the Nolambas only in relation to other dynasties, stating that “in Medieval South India, all centers, major and minor, were peripheral to each other” (14).
Cohen also criticizes the essentialism of traditional stylistic analysis as employed within the dynastic model. He claims that the categorization of a dynastic style reduces the complex network of features that create a visual appearance to a few traits that signify the immovable label of a particular kingdom. Cohen shows that in the case of Nolamba art, which shares some elements from other sources, historians who attempt to label it stylistically have often produced vague and confusing discussions. The author illustrates this by citing C. Sivaramamurti, who in Nolamba Sculptures in the Madras Government Museum accumulates so many dynastic labels in reference to a Hemavati Shiva sculpture that Cohen is forced to question whether its hair can be described as “a Pallava—Chola—Chalukya—Rashtrakuta type” (18). Although the example is amusing, the problems that Cohen raises for Indic art historians are serious. His analysis of previous Nolamba scholarship reveals methodological flaws that if not addressed will continue to produce studies that misrepresent Indian art and culture.
Temple Architecture and Sculpture of the Nolambas: Ninth-Tenth Centuries is a vital contribution to our understanding of the art and history of the Nolamba Dynasty. This comprehensive and adequately illustrated study will be a great service to specialists of Indic art history and architecture, and of South India in general. Cohen’s analysis of historiography and historical methodologies is concise and provocative, and the first chapter of this volume is of value to anyone interested in the issues that pervade the discipline of Indian art history. It is the author’s goal to persuade the reader that the art of the Nolambas is an “artistic mannerism” that shares a few traits with other dynasties but is essentially, and determinately, Nolamba in character (60). He succeeds. Cohen’s insightful and meticulous study will ensure that the Nolamba dynasty and its monuments no longer reside in the periphery of South Asian art history.