A Context for the Shiva Nataraja

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Popularized in the 10th century as an ode to the power and cultural prestige of the royal Chola dynasty of India’s Tamil Region, the image of the Shiva Nataraja depicts the Hindu god Shiva as the dancing lord in a jig of post battle triumph. Oft made of bronze through a casting technique dubbed the lost wax process (Wolpert 158), sculptures of the Shiva Nataraja resided in the temples of the royal Chola family. Periodically the precious statues of the dancing Shiva were adorned with gems and silks and paraded through the temple and streets and temporarily relocated to an attending position to avail their participation in ceremonial events and affording the public an opportunity to be graced by their presence. The portrayal of the Nataraja, repetitious throughout Medieval Indian art, conveys a myriad of cosmic and spiritual intentions through the complex and iconic pose and imagery of the dancing lord Shiva. The image of the dancing lord lends to an interpretation of Shiva as a god with unlimited authority over the cosmic and earthly realms. In A Philosophical Exploration of Art and Humanity, Ben-Ami Scharfstein consolidates the interpretations of the Shiva Nataraja and his dance as “a dance of world creation, of world preservation, of world destruction, of illusive veiling (or incarnation) and of release (or salvation)” (122).

Upon my visit to the St. Louis Museum of Art, I found the ancient statue of the Shiva Nataraja, standing approximately 27 inches tall and made of bronze. In this sculpted depiction of Shiva he is dancing gracefully within a circle of flame with his four arms moving independent of one another. The frozen and captured movement of his jig is realistic and reminiscent of all preconceived notions that I hold of traditional Indian dancing. In one hand he holds a drum, in one he cups a flame, one hand points towards the heavens and the other toward a foot that is raised in the eloquent flow of his movement. Beneath the foot of the static and supporting leg lay the crushed remnants of a dwarf creature. Shiva’s hair flows wildly to the sides with the momentum of his graceful movements. Although sculpted of bronze and void of natural color, the poise of his body seems extremely lifelike and the dancing lord appears to have been frozen in time.

The image of the Shiva Nataraja conveys a multitude of meanings through simple icons and symbols while the overarching display of Shiva’s power and omnipotence is extremely apparent through this piece of artwork. In this depiction of Shiva, he is shown in a post battle dance of triumph as he moves gracefully within the confines of traditional Indian dancing. Shiva dances within a perfect circle of flame that alleges to represent the bounds of the universe over which he presides. Maneuvering four arms, each of Shiva’s appendages operate independently and carry their own individual symbolism. In the hand of his upper right arm, Shiva carries the hand drum called damaru, which is believed to have beaten the initial rhythm that birthed creation (Metropolitan Museum of Art). In the hand of his upper left arm, Shiva cups a flame that represents the fire that will ignite in the destruction of the universe (MET). The hands of his remaining arms are free, one pointing upward to the heavens and one pointing below. With his right skyward hand, Shiva makes the gesture of the abhayamudra, a gesture intended to quell fear (MET) or as some interpret, announcing peace (Burckhardt and Fitzgerald 46). With his lower left hand he points a raised left foot, an invitation for refuge to the troubled, and a gesture that promises protection for the troubled soul and deliverance (Burckhardt and Fitzgerald 46). Beneath his right foot is the trampled and broken body of a troll which represents ignorance and illusion defeated (MET). In the momentum of his dance Shiva’s hair to flies wildly behind him, which represents his presentation of salvation to those who faithfully follow and worship (MET). Other interpretations read his flowing locks to depict his reign and protection over the area of the Ganges River.

Depicting a popular Hindu tale, the image of Shiva as the dancing lord represents the triumph of Shiva over the illusion and ignorance that threatens to taint the minds and souls of mankind. According to Hindu myth, Shiva entered the Chidambaram Forest disguised as a wandering beggar in an effort to teach and humiliate the sages who had failed to properly worship. This effort resulted in a gruesome battle in which the sages hurled snakes and demons at the powerful Shiva in an attempt to defeat him. Upon Shiva’s triumph over the sages he did a dance of victory— this dance and the power of Shiva over that which is foul and threatening to human kind is encapsulated in the sculpted image of the dancing lord (India: Shiva Nataraja).

While the image of the dancing Shiva existed for centuries before the rise of the Chola family into power in the Tamil region, it was the Chola dynasty that popularized this iconic image through its appropriation as a symbol of the power and prestige of the Chola empire. The Chola empire saw 400 years of conquest and prosperity as achieved through competent militia and the early Indian political structure. It is believed that the Chola family dynasty identified with the image of the Shiva Nataraja because of its depiction of Shiva’s triumph in battle and its general representation of omnipotence. While the Cholas were renowned for their formidability as warriors, their appropriation of the Nataraja depiction of Shiva represented an ode to that formidability and demonstrated a pride in their military strength and standing (India: Shiva Nataraja).

Through the prestigious centuries of the Chola dynasty the arts flourished. According to the Asia Society Museum “Chola rulers were active patrons, and during their reign, poetry, drama, music, and dance flourished. They also constructed enormous stone temple complexes decorated inside and out with painted and sculpted representation” (Asia Society Museum). The 10th century reign of Queen Sembiyan Madadevi witnessed a cultural mastery of the sculpting mediums of bronze-casting and stone work. According to the Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art it was during this reign of a prosperous dynasty that the image of the Shiva Nataraja “became an iconic religious image and potent political symbol” (India: Shiva Nataraja).

During the Chola dynasty expert bronze-working artists, who were commissioned by royal families and inspired by poetic renditions of holy script and story, recreated this popularized image of the dancing lord for the practical and political use of the royal family and the for the ceremonial activity of the temples. Once a sculpture of the Shiva Nataraja was commissioned and delivered, the sculpted piece would reside in the temples of the royal family until being unleashed and paraded through the streets and temples for fetivals and coremonys in an effort to grace his loyal subjects with his presence. As part of a Hindu tradition dating back thousands of years, the statues of the Shiva Nataraja were adorned with expensive silks and gemstones for these exceptional festivals and events (India: Shiva Nataraja). According to the Asia Art Museum “changing religious concepts during the 10th century demanded that the deities take part in a variety of public roles similar to those of a human monarch. As a result, large bronze images were created to be carried outside the temple to participate in daily rituals, processions, and temple festivals” (Asia Art Museum). To accommodate these processions and the ultimate utilitarian purpose behind the construction of these large bronze statues, sculptors designed these pieces with holes for poles to carry and parade them.

The bronze work statues of the dancing lord Shiva of 10th century India were composed using what Charles Harrison refers to in his book, An Introduction to Art, as the lost wax technique. The lost wax technique is a slow and intentional process that requires time and skill of its artist. In this process the artist begins by making a rough sculpture of his desired image out of clay that is slightly smaller in dimension than his intended outcome sculpture. The artist covers this preliminary sculpture with bees wax and proceeds to shape the finer details into this more pliable medium. The artist then covers this entire sculpted body with yet another layer of clay. Metal pins are inserted into the sculpture body to connect all layers. This layered sculpture is fired in a kiln which allows the clay to harden and the wax beneath to melt away. The artist pours molten bronze into the cavern left behind by the dissipated wax, and this forms the final draft of the bronze sculpture within the sheath of the clay mold. Eventually the clay mold is broken and what remains is the bronze sculpture of the artist initial and ultimate intention (Harrison, 255).

While the lost wax technique was a standard bronze working process of the time, dancing Shiva statues of the Cholo dynasty had a uniqueness to the process of their construction. Many of the larger bronze statues of this era were made in individual pieces and that were later connected molten bronze. Cholo dynasty renditions of the Shiva Nataraja are the exception to this trend as these statues were often made in one solid piece. Once casted, the sculptor would spend the better part of several weeks in the finishing stages of sanding and sculpting the finer details of the bronze work piece (Harrison 255).

The Nataraja or the dancing lord is an exceptional depiction of the Hindu god Shiva and an exceptional piece of artwork in terms of form, function and its transformative journey from the 10th century India and into its current context. According to the Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art “Nataraja represents Indian tradition, cosmic principles, Tamil identity, and classical dance. Artists use his image to sell products, critique society, and present philosophical concepts. Nataraja is truly a god for all time” (Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art). The Shiva Nataranja has survived as an iconic Hindu God from its 10th century popularization to the current context in modern Hinduism. The meaning behind the Nataraja is complex, versatile and timeless and Shiva’s depiction in this role maintains its relevance in Hindu worship and in the realm of art and culture.

Works Cited

“Bronze Sculpture of the Chola Period” Asia Society: The Collection in context, Asia Society Museum. N.p.,n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2013. <http://www.asiasocietymuseum.org/region_results.asp?RegionID=1&CountryID=1&ChapterID=7>

Burckhardt, Titus, and Michael Oren Fitzgerald. Foundations of oriental art & symbolism. Bloomington, Ind: World Wisdom, 2009. Print.

Harrison, Charles. An introduction to art. New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009. Print.

"India: Shiva Nataraja (Lord of the Dance)." Freer and Sackler Galleries. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2013. <http://www.asia.si.edu/explore/indianart/>.

Scharfstein, Ben. Art without borders: a philosophical exploration of art and humanity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Print.

"The Metropolitan Museum of Art - Shiva as Lord of Dance (Nataraja)." The Metropolitan Museum of Art - Shiva as Lord of Dance (Nataraja). 158. n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2013. <http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/39328>. Wolpert, Stanley A. India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Print.