The Joy of Museums

Finding Meaning in a Museum

Shiva as the Lord of Dance

Shiva as the Lord of Dance LACMA edit

“Shiva as the Lord of Dance” combines in a single image the great Hindu god Shiva’s roles as creator, preserver and destroyer of the universe and conveys the conception of the never-ending cycle of time.

Shiva has many guises and many representations in art, but the most popular is as a dancing figure within he arch of flames, called Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance. Nataraja is a depiction of the Hindu god Shiva as the cosmic ecstatic dancer. The pose and artwork is described in many Hindu texts and the dance relief is featured in major Hindu temples of Shaivism. It is an image seen in museums and temples across the world and it is rich in iconography and hidden meaning.

Shiva’s dance is set within a flaming circle of fire. The god holds in his upper right hand, the action of creation, the hand drum that made the first sounds of creation. His upper left hand holds, the act of destruction, the fire that will destroy the universe. With his lower right hand, the action of protection, he makes the gesture that allays fear. The figure being trampled by his right foot represents the illusion, which leads mankind astray. Shiva’s front left hand, pointing to his raised left foot, signifies refuge and release for the troubled soul. The energy of his dance makes his hair fly to the sides.

Shiva Nataraja (Lord of the Dance), Chola dynasty, c. 990 AD, Tamil Nadu, India, bronze - Freer Gallery of Art - DSC05147

Shiva Nataraja – Lord of the Dance – from the MET

Just like the art of medieval Europe, the art of India at this time, was devoted to the service of religion. The spiritual experience was enhanced by meditating on works of art. This elegant bronze statue of Shiva in its original Temple location would have awed and inspired a Hindu devotee.

The three gods of the Hindu trinity are Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Siva the Destroyer and Restorer. The Tamil sculptors of the Chola dynasty (880–1279) realized Shiva the Dancer in his most complete and graphic form and one which has become symbolic of Indian civilization. Siva as represented in this historic work of art is perfectly poised and depicts Siva’s grace and majesty.

In 1921, the French sculptor Auguste Rodin wrote that the sculpture of Shiva as the Lord of Dance has”

“what many people cannot see—the unknown depths, the core of life. There is grace in elegance, but beyond grace there is perfection.”

The English philosopher Aldous Huxley said in 1961 that the Hindu image of god as a dancer is unlike anything he had seen in Western art:

“We don’t have anything that approaches the symbolism of this work of art, which is both cosmic and psychological.”

Shiva's statue at CERN engaging in the Nataraja dance

A statue of Shiva engaging in the Nataraja dance at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland

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Essential Facts:

  • Title:                         Shiva as the Lord of Dance
  • Find Site:                 Tamil Nadu, India
  • Year:                         950-1000
  • Period:                     Chola period (880–1279)
  • Medium:                  Copper alloy
  • Dimensions             30 x 22 1/2 x 7 in. (76.20 x 57.15 x 17.78 cm)
  • Museum:                 Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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“To heal your wounds, I get you to dance.” Shahram Shiva

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Photo Credit: 1) See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 2) By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons 3) Kenneth Lu [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons