Leading art historian Vidya Dehelja visited the Center for South Asian Studies (CSAS) at the University of Michigan in November 2022 to discuss her recent book, The Thief Who Stole My Heart. The book reveals the story behind the sacred bronze statues from India’s Chola dynasty. 

For 400 years, the Chola dynasty was the dominant cultural, artistic, religious, and political force in south India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldive Islands. The Chola dynasty produced thousands of beautifully detailed statues of Hindu gods from the ninth through the thirteenth century. These bronze sculptures ― mainly featuring Shiva ― were adorned with jewels and paraded through towns during Chola festivals. 

Dehejia discusses the bronzes, Chola history, culture, and religion in this richly illustrated book. 

Dehejia began her talk by introducing us to an unnamed master sculptor in a small coastal village along the Bay of Bengal. She then highlighted his masterpiece from the year 1011 of majestic Shiva, made for a military general. 

“I believe this artist is in the league of Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo,” she says. “We believe his inspiration may well have been child-saint Sambandar’s opening hymn that hails Shiva as ‘the thief who stole my heart.’” 

While discussing his work in detail, Dehejia demonstrated how the bronzes represented the people and practices of their era. Beyond their everyday importance, she revealed the statues’ role in the empire and Chola society. She discussed the copper and jewels used for the idols and how the resources may have influenced the Chola empire’s political engagement with Sri Lanka. She also investigates the role of women in bronze commissions and the inscriptions on temple walls.

“There is much to study when looking at these inscriptions and the materials they used for the art,” adds Dehejia. “The truth is we don’t know the answers to many of the questions that come up, but studying them is still compelling.” 

Vidya Dehejia is Barbara Stoler Miller professor emerita of Indian art at Columbia University in New York and the author of more than 20 books on the history of Indian art. She has served as deputy director and chief curator of the Freer & Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. In 2012, the president of India awarded her a Padma Bhushan, one of the highest civilian awards in India, for her outstanding contribution to art and education.