For a long time I have had a vast interest in a small sculpture located in my parent?s entryway. This sculpture is a figure with four arms, stands on one leg atop what appears to be a baby, and wears a funny looking headdress of some sort. For years I?ve wondered why this little man had four arms, stood in such an uncomfortable-looking fashion, and what meaning he has. Finally, my wonder has turned to insight, as a course I took in college, Art History, has suddenly shown me the light.
The first real picture that I saw of this funny little guy, Nataraja, was in our textbook where I learned he is a god adopted by the ancient Indian imperial Cholas. We were then assigned a visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts where I had my first look at an original sculpture of the dancing god. The piece is named Shiva Nataraja (Lord of the Dance). It is an archetypal sculpture made in the late tenth century by an unknown artist and was found in a temple near Pondicherry, India. The sculpture my parents have is a cast metal one with a very dull gray luster, about six inches high. You can tell with close examination that this was most likely one of many made from the same cast and sold as a souvenir type item. The one at the museum was quite different as it is made from bronze with a much smoother appearance and stands about twenty-eight inches high. Aligning the nose, naval, and weight bearing foot, the central axis of the figure maintains his center of balance and equilibrium, while his arms extend asymmetrically to each side. The smaller figure at my parent?s is much more flat, and looks as if he is struggling to stand on his one leg. The one at the museum is much more three-dimensional, and looks much more relaxed.
At first glance of this graceful dancing deity, my first reaction was one of awe. The fact that the piece is very old and is still fully intact is amazing in itself. Also, I didn?t think a real sculpture of the one in my parent?s house would be so large, standing more than two feet high. The Shiva has a very calm expression on his face, with a quaint smile, which gives the feeling of invitation, almost like he wants you to partake in the dance with him, which is exactly what I did. He is balanced on his bent right leg, with his left leg up and bent over his right leg, extended into the air with his foot pointed outward in the same direction. He has two right arms and two left arms. One of his right arms is bent, extended outward to his right and holds a small object which looks like a drinking cup, (it?s actually a drum). The other is extending out to the right and then to his front as if he is attempting to give a ?high five?. One of his left arms is bent and extending outward to his left, his palm cupped and facing upward holding what appears to be a flame. The other is extending to his right, across his body, with his hand pointed downward toward his left foot. I may have looked funny standing there mimicking his stance, but the invitational gesture was too hard to resist.
Atop his head is a headdress, which has a tall feathery-looking top and what looks almost like seven stiffened hair locks protruding from each side. There are flowers at the end of the locks, and a small lizard-like animal perched on the right side. Just below the animal is a half-moon shaped gizmo. In his left ear resides a very large round earring. He has something draping over his broad shoulders, and wears a ribbon tied above his small waist. He also wears a short loincloth, a thick necklace, bracelets, armbands, and anklets. Finally, and oddly, he is balanced atop a small crawling figure looking upward with a very expressionless face. The base of the sculpture is only about eight to ten inches wide, just enough room for the baby-looking figure to rest on. I spent at least thirty minutes observing the Shiva, and his graceful stance. The sculpture is a very graceful and awe-inspiring piece. I wanted to take it home, for my entryway.
Shiva, in his form of Nataraja or lord of the dance, was adopted by the imperial Cholas as their family deity. Images of Shiva performing his cosmic dance were very popular is South India where the Cholas ruled from the early tenth century. His dance symbolizes the five activities of Shiva as the cosmic deity: creator, preserver, destroyer, remover of illusion and dispenser of grace. He is trampling the prostrate dwarf body of Apasmarapurusa, the demon of ignorance. The fire in his left hand symbolizes the destruction of Samsara and the physical universe as well as the destruction of Maya and our ego-centered concepts. What I thought was hair locks is actually emblematic of fire as well, often shown as a circle of fire ringing the god. The drum in his back right hand and its beat represent the irrevocable rhythms of creation and destruction, birth and death. The ?have no fear? mudra is signified with his front right arm gesture. The other, stretching across his body, signifies the promise of liberation. All in all, the Chola Nataraja presents a characteristically Indian synthesis of the godly, and the human. There was a strong belief in the importance of an intimate and personal relationship with this lordly god, through whose compassion one is saved.
Perhaps the small depiction of the Shiva that captivated me as a youngster had sparked my early interest in ancient Indian Artwork. My art class has added to my interest, as I have now just begun a collection of Shiva Nataraja. My collection consists so far only of one piece, a small sculpture that once resided at my parent?s house. The beginning of what will hopefully someday become a large collection of the ancient graceful dancing Indian deity artwork.
Jade Douglas Bishop
Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Minneapolis Institute of arts