Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Shiva Nataraja)


India, Tamil Nadu
Chola period (880-1279), about 970
Copper alloy
H. 26 3/4 in. (67.9 cm); 1979.20

Artist Comments

Shiva-Nataraja's ananda tandava is among the most widely depicted and interpreted compositions in the classical South Indian dance repertoire, with abundant and copious textual and sculptural references. The research work for my 1995 dance production Mahakal (Time), made me take a closer look at the Nataraja symbology for insights into this timeless image of classical equipoise. The primary question, of course was, Why did the Gods dance? For better comprehension of the form and kinetics of this 'Lord of the Dance', I studied hundreds of Nataraja icons. It became clear that while the sculptural detailing of the dancing deity had been virtually standardized and perfected into an iconographic consistency, there was exciting diversity and vari ation in the casting of the little crawling figure below Shiva's foot. It is to control and regulate this dwarf-demon, Apasmara, symbolizing egotism, ignorance, and sullen arrogance, that Nataraja dances.

In the fantasy of the ninth and tenth century bronze-casters, every Apasmara assumed a different gestural form and sculptural weight. They were able to build in an exquisite tension between the upturned, agitated, agonized figure pinned to the ground by Nataraja's balancing foot, fixed in a slippery, stubborn mood of escape, and Nataraja's expression of bliss (ananda) at fulfilling the purpose of his dance-to contain the dehumanized forces through the energy and awakening of dance, and restore balance to the universe.

The idea of integrating this crouching, distorted, prone figure of the dwarf-demon in my choreography was, in itself, an unconven- tional and contemporary direction for me as it necessitated opening out an area neglected in our classical dance, the floor level. It also enabled a direct addressing of contemporary issues of false consciousness. Most importantly, it enabled me to present the icon in its totality and draw attention to Shiva Nataraja's precarious balancing act which infuses dynamic tension to his form, while celebrating the sheer joy of combating negative energy.

Gita Mehta
Nataraja is Shiva as the Lord of the Dance, in the ananda tandava, the Dance of Bliss. A ring of flames around the god depicts the whirling energy of nature's cycles of birth and death and rebirth, a dancing cosmos brought into motion by the dancing god within, yet the wild movement of Shiva's dance is in counterpoint to the stillness of his smiling face, deep in meditative consciousness.

This is Shiva as the Destroyer and Shiva as the Destroyer of Destruction: as two forms of time - kala, temporary time, and mahakala, eternal time.

In one hand he holds a drum-symbol of the sound of Om and of the vibration which is the origin of creation. In another he holds a flame to incinerate the cosmos and permit creation of the next. A hand points to a foot dancing on a dwarf, symbolic of the evil which yokes men to the wheel of existence through heedlessness, inattention, oblivion. The raised foot offers release, through awareness, from endured time, kala, the endless cycle of rebirth. A raised hand indicates the sublime consciousness that results from union with mahakala, eternal time.

Containing the most complex philosophical perceptions in a single simple image the Nataraja is, for me, the defining icon of India.

Malavika Sarukkai
This icon speaks of the ever dancing cosmos. I am awed by the iconographic representation of Shiva as Nataraja, the cosmic dancer. His face is radiant with serenity and the energy of stillness while his body pulsates with the energy of cosmic activity in the cycle of Mahakal or Great Time. There is a simultaneity-of stillness and movement, of creation and dissolution. And the dance goes onů To Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, I pay homage.