Nataraja, popularly known as Dancing Shiva, has its origins in Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. It is probably the most recognizable piece in Indian Art, may be competing with Ganesh’s images that we see in various Avatars. Nataraja, though has not changed much with time, it remains more or less the same. I have seen only one variation of it at Birla Museum where it is upside down.
Nataraja – The King of Dance
Let me walk you through the iconography of Nataraja. Take a good look at the image above. Shiva as we know, stands for destruction followed by creation and this is well represented in this image. This image shows the circle of life and how Shiva is a part of each of them. Nataraja literally means the King of Dance and performs Tandav or the Cosmic Dance in this form.
Upper Right Hand holds Damru – an hourglass shaped small drum that is beaten by rotation of wrist and beats come when thick string tied to it hit the drum area. Damru represents Sound from which the universe was created. It represents Creation.
Upper Left Hand holds Agni or Fire– which is a symbol of Destruction. The two opposing symbols of creation and destruction both hands represent the balance of both, or a cycle of one following the other.
Lower Right Hand is in Abhaya Mudra representing Protection to the one who follows Shiva or the path of righteousness. Abhaya is Sanskrit word for ‘Without Fear’
Lower Left Hand facing downwards is Varada Mudra represents sanctuary for soul of devotee or Liberation. Lower hands represent the protective, nurturing or preserving part of the Universe that is for the time between creation and destruction.
Right Leg is balanced on top of a demon that represents ignorance. So Shiva while creating, nurturing, destroying and re-creating is Trampling the Demon of Ignorance. Observe that the demon is actually looking with a smiling face towards Shiva.
Left Leg is raised and represents Dance of Bliss.
Snake around the waist represents Shakti in the form of Kundalini that resides in our Navel. Crescent moon represents enlightenment. Left ear has Man’s earring and in right a Woman’s depicting the fact that wherever there is Shiva there is Shakti. He is wearing necklace, armlets, anklets, toe rings, bejeweled belt like a dancer. Expression on his face is that of equanimity. Perfectly balanced – neither happy for creation nor sad for destruction. As he dances, his hair open up and the right side of his Jata you can see Ganga. Circle of Fire around the figure represents Universe.
Noted Physicist Fritjof Capra says in his book Tao of Physics – “Modern physics has shown that the rhythm of creation and destruction is not only manifest in the turn of the seasons and in the birth and death of all living creatures, but is also the very essence of inorganic matter,” and that “For the modern physicists, then, Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter.“
He concluded: “Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Shivas in a beautiful series of bronzes. In our time, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance. The metaphor of the cosmic dance thus unifies ancient mythology, religious art and modern physics.”
I am tempted to ask him if Shiva and Shakti are essentially what the modern Particle Physicists call Particle and Anti-Particle, coming together of whom generates endless energy.
Art Historian Ananda K Coomaraswamy says that Nataraja is the clearest image of activity of God…A more fluid and energetic representation of a moving figure than the dancing figure of Shiva can scarcely be found anywhere. He elaborates that dance of Shiva represents his following five activities called Panchkritya:
‘Shrishti’ – overlooking, creation, evolution
‘Sthiti’ – preservation, support
‘Samhara’ – destruction, devolution
‘Tirobhava’ – veiling, embodiment, illusion, giving rest
‘Anugraha’ – release, salvation, grace
All these are represented in the above image through hands – Creation from drum, preservation from Abhaya Mudra, destruction from Fire and liberation from Varada Mudra.
This is how he describes Nataraja ‘The images then, represent Siva dancing, having four hands, with braided and jewelled hair of which the lower locks are whirling in the dance. In His hair may be seen a wreathing cobra, a skull, and the mermaid figure of Ganga; upon it rests the crescent moon, and it is crowned with a wreath of Cassia leaves. In His right ear He wears a man’s earring, a woman’s in the left; He is adorned with necklaces and armlets, a jewelled belt, anklets, bracelets, finger and toe-rings. The chief part of His dress consists of tightly fitting breeches, and He wears also a fluttering scarf and a sacred thread. One right hand holds a drum, the other is uplifted in the sign of do not fear: one left hand holds fire, the other points down upon the demon Muyalaka, a dwarf holding a cobra; the left foot is raised. There is a lotus pedestal, from which springs an encircling glory (tiruvasi), fringed with flame, and touched within by the hands holding drum and fire.’
Here is an image of Shiva depicting 81 distinct poses of Dance from Badami Caves in Karnataka.
This is my first attempt at writing about Indian Art, a subject that I can best call myself a student of, so if there are any errors please help me correct them.