NATRAJA (The Lord of Dance) in The Art Institute of Chicago

Natraja is one of the manifestations of Shiva, a major Hindu deity.

The origins of Hinduism are traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization, dated from 4000 to 2200 B.C.E. Though Hinduism is commonly viewed in the West as polytheistic (worship of multiple deities), it is more accurately described as henotheistic— the worship of a single deity with the recognition that other gods and goddesses are aspects or manifestations of that single deity. One god creates many personalities to represent its different aspects and worship of one is actually the worship of all. For the ongoing birth, preservation, and death of the cosmos and of the entities in it, there are three personalities of Brahma which are essential and which persistently keep creating this cycle 

  1. Brahama:  Creator who continues to create new realities
  2. Vishnu: Preserver, who preserves these creations. His most popular manifestation is Krishna.
  3. Shiva: Destroyer, who is sometimes compassionate and erotic and sometimes destructive. His most popular manifestation is Natraja, the Lord of dance.

Shiva’s Manifestations in The Art Institute of Chicago
There are some very good South Asian icons, both Buddhist and Hindu, in the Art Institute of Chicago. Among these icons, three pieces represent Shiva:

  1. Shiva with Uma and Skanda (Bronze, Tamil Nadu c. 14), the family grouping of Shiva, seated with his divine mate Uma and son Skanda
  1. Cosmic form of Shiva (Black chlorite schist, West Bengal c. 11 & 12), called Sada-shiva which means “always auspicious
  1. “Natraja” (Bronze, Tamil Nadu, c. 10 – 11), King of Dance

Among these three representations of Shiva, Natraja is the most significant. One’s attention is drawn not only to its form but also to the symbolism it contains. This piece of sculpture is from the Chola Dynasty that ruled southern India from 800 to 1279 C.E.   It is a brilliant icon and probably one of the best representations of Hindu art.

 Natraja is significant in the sense that Shiva is shown as the source of all movement within the cosmos, represented by the arch of flames. The purpose of the dance is to release men from the illusion of the idea of the “self” and of the physical world. It implies that Maya (the material world and its illusions) not only constantly changes its shape but that the universe itself will implode to destruction. This also means that this dance of creation and destruction is staged within all of us. Through this destruction and creation within us, we evolve. We lose old ideas and old cells and create new perceptions and new cells, and in the end we die. But then we revive again in a new body to re-start the process—the dance, one that is quite like the cosmos.      

Shiva is usually described as a destroyer but he can also be viewed as a balancer of the cosmos. All the symbolism connected to him portrays positive and negative forces and the balance that is created by them. Shiva as Natraja , balancing himself on his one foot, is probably trying to balance the forces of  the universe in his four hands. With one hand he assures us with his abhaya mudra (fear not) that there is no need to be afraid, representative of his positive forces, and on the other hand he keeps the fire of maya to keep the illusion of this dual world intact. The duality of light and dark and evil and good that sustains us but at the same time threatens us is the symbolism of Natraja. One thing defines the other and cannot exist without the other. There can be no comprehension of light if we don’t know what dark is and there can be no judgment about evil if we don’t know what good is.

Fritjof Capra, in The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, beautifully relates Nataraj’s dance with modern physics. He writes “every subatomic particle not only performs an energy dance, but also is an energy dance; a pulsating process of creation and destruction . . . without end . . . . For the modern physicists, then Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter. As in Hindu mythology, it is a continual dance of creation and destruction involving the whole cosmos; the basis of all existence and of all natural phenomena” (Capra: 45).

Displays in New Cultures
In a museum it is impossible to experience Darsan which is one of the main premises of Hindu worship. Darsan is usually translated as “auspicious sight”, the important act of worship from a laymen’s point of view. It’s the act of standing in the presence of the deity and beholding the image with one’s own eyes, to see and be seen by the deity. In the Hindu understandings the deity is present in the image, therefore through the gaze one gain blessings of the divine.

The world might have shrunk and it might have become a global village, but we are still far from a cultural dialogue that can help us understand the other side of the village. These art objects actually give us that opportunity, and they often create interest in people to gain some awareness of other cultures. The popularity of Buddhism in the West rests on the icon of Buddha. If a Westerner has never seen a Buddhist icon, it is quite difficult for him to be interested in Buddhist philosophy. The icon reached the West before the creation of the preacher. These objects represent a window to other cultures and though cultures are never static and these objects belong to their past, they represent deep-rooted philosophies and perceptions about life that the people of that culture found dear. 

We have reached an era in which we are bound to interact with the beliefs and aspirations of other cultures or groups at some point in our lives. We can enhance the differences to create hate or we can open-mindedly attempt to understand the psyche working in the mind of other cultures, to find the real humanity that resides in all of us. All religions that have evolved in this world and all cultures that have taken roots in the societies of this world believe in that core of humanity that resides within all of us and that demands compassion and wisdom from all of us. Natraja is part of that core of humanity and demands a better understanding of the universe from all of us.

Author: Imran Omer

I am an author and educator, who loves fiction and art. My blog will be on topics related to Literature, Art and Education.

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