Dancing Shiva Births Fosse Crossed with Alvin Ailey

by Kim Hirko

Art History


An unknown artist created the bronze sculpture entitled Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, Dancing Shiva, or Chola Shiva Nataraja in 1000 C.E. via the royal patronage of the South Indian Chola Dynasty. Examples of the thirty-two inch high freestanding sculpture-in-the-round are housed in the Naltunai Isvaram Temple in Punjai, India; the National Museum of India in New Delhi; and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  The artist depicts the god, Shiva, who branches from the Hindu religion's concept of the Divine (or what the western world may call God or the Universe).  Discussion of the sculpture shall include a visual analysis in non-technical language and a contextual interpretation.

In terms of how the statue of Shiva Natarja (SN) was created, the lost wax process was used.  Whereas bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) is quite heavy, hollow casting may have been used even though the sculpture is less than three feet tall.  This additive method begins with the artist sculpting the desired figure in wax (a very malleable medium).  A layer of clay encases the wax sculpture and is subjected to heat for the clay to harden.  The inner layer of wax melts and flows out through release tubes or openings as the hard clay "shell" is now the mold.  Liquid bronze is poured into the mold to harden, be removed, and hand polished.  This process did not permit exact multiple copies because the mold had to be broken each time, but did allow creation of vigorous and off-balance action poses (Nadkarni 09/02/10, 11/16/10).

A naive artist using paper, pencil, and an eraser can recreate the SN's bodily shape.  Begin with a human body standing with the feet turned out in ballet's third position.  Bend at the knees into a demi plie. Remain in this position as the left leg rotates at the hip and lifts up for the left heel to be level with the right knee and never breaks the angle of bend in the demi plie.  The left foot is flexed.  The left knee is in a direct vertical line with the heart.  The left hip shifts outward to counterbalance the entire figure's weight supported by the right leg.  SN's waist is narrowed to be in line with the ears.  The torso remains frontal, thus squaring the shoulders.  SN has four arms (two on each side) that extend from the shoulders' ball and socket joints.  The outstretched left front arm crosses over the chest, yet lowers the elbow to be in line with the left breast and parallel to the left shin.  The left hand remains flat and bends at the wrist to point to the left ankle.  The back left arm extends to the side and bends at the elbow to a ninety-degree angle.  The back left hand is turned palm upward as the elbow is locked and lowered, bringing the hand even with the clavicle.  The back left hand bends at the wrist toward the floor as the fingers bend upward at the first joint.  The front right arm extends forward and bends at the elbow to a ninety degree angle.  The elbow is locked and lowered until the right wrist is directly above the front left hand's back.  The front right hand bends upward at the wrist for the palm to show in frontal view.  the back right arm extends to the side and bends at the elbow to a ninety-degree angle.  The back left hand is turned palm upward and rotated to face SN's head.  The back right elbow is locked and lowered until the tip of the hand is level with SN's mouth.  the head faces front with its eyes closed and is in line with the torso.

The visual aspect of SN includes line, shape, space, color, texture, mass/volume, perspective, proportion, scale, and balance.  The observers' eyes see the piece as a whole, whereas there is no separation between the ovoid-shaped halo and humanoid form it outlines. SN's line is a central axis that descends from a flame atop the halo's center.  While the first line seen is vertical, each bend of the body from the hip, wrist, elbow, or knee creates a diagonal line in various other directions.  A diagonal line suggests expressionistic motion.  The eleven diagonally created lines may be smaller than the vertical bodyline as a whole, but create multiple viewpoints for the observer.

SN's shape is biomorphic (or organic) in design.  There is a three-dimensional humanoid body in the piece, but there is also the dichotic blend of a body in motion with stillness by using a closed ovoid shape around the body.  The overall shape has an expressive quality due to the amount of negative space filled in by the body's contortions within the halo.

The bronze piece uses no additional pigment or hue other than the play of light and dark across the body's survace via its positioning.  The left shin, right calf, front left forearm, front right palm, front left palm, and forehead reflect light and provide contrast to further enhance the idea of motion in an enclosed space.

The actual texture of the piece is smooth because it is polished metal.  However, because the texture is smooth, this also implies skin.  Further, the etching of detail on the body, halo, and small being beneath the SN's right foot is very slight, similar to the feel of Braille printing. (Deep carving into bronze is difficult because the metal is very hard when cooled as compared to a metal such as gold, which at certain grades is malleable and can be carved into or easily dented.)

SN comprises mass because it is a three-dimensional sculpture, but it also comprises volume because there is a seemingly equal relationship beween the humanoid form and the halo with negative space.  The eye sees depth from a front view of SN.  No background exists, thus making the piece in two-point perspective.  In SN perspective, proportion, and scale are closely linked.  The humanoid figure is idealized because it is human-like, but physically unrealistic to have four arms.  The image is a complex pose of naturalistic inference via the suggestion of emotion.  The piece's three-dimensionality implies realism.  Although SN is onlty thirty-two inches tall, the human proportions of head, chest, waist, hip, thigh, calf, ankle, and wrist are physically possile, and in relation to an average human being, thus making this sculpture a miniature.

Finally, SN is symmetrical in form because it is humanoid and the halo can be cut into two equal parts to establish a central axis.  Nevertheless there is an asymmetrical balance due to the left arm and leg crossing the central axis line.  In addition, weight shifting does occur because of the suggestion of motion.  The back arms behave similar to a tightrope walker's balance bar while the right leg must bend at the knee to support the weight of the complement side which is raised and relaxed.

A brief pictorial description of SN is as follows: the back left hand holds a flame.  The front right hand makes a Hindu mudra symbol for protection.  A snake coils around the front right arm.  The back right hand holds a drum.  The right leg stands atop a small person.  Clothing on the humanoid includes a loincloth, arm bands, a ribbon tied around the waist, earrings, a ribbon flowing away from the figure and toward the left, necklace, bracelets, and a phallic-shaped crown.  Snakes with a flame on each one flow outward from the crown's sides.  A lotus flower's stem with two leaves is on the left side of the torso.  Eyes are closed and a slight grin shows.  Flames shaped like hands are equidistant from each other on the halo.  Ten flames are on each halo half with an apex flame that appears slightly larger.  The base of the piece has four stepped and receding levels topped with a decorative pattern horizontally encircling the base of the halo.

SN was created by royalty's request which leads an observer to assume the figure is more god than humanoid, and thus an idealized sulpture in the Hindu culture.  Royalty is thought to be "closer to god" or "god-like" more so than the common citizen.  Shiva is portrayed as half man/half woman, analogous to the plight of good/evil, light/dark, heaven/hell, life/death, freedom/imprisonment, intelligence/ignorance, joy/sorrow, creation/destruction, etc., thereby making any entity complete by having both complementary and supplementary parts.  "Adherence to the canons of iconographic symbolism was considered vital, since it was imperative that the image faithfully reflect the abstract nature of the god, who would not enter it unless it adequately expressed his role in the interplay of cosmic forces" (Maxwell 23). 

In a dancing pose, the image elicits emotions ranging from angst and frenzy to beauty and grace.  (Therefore, only a god that no mortal has ever seen could do such a simultaneous feat.)  Thus, the complementary, physical positioning of one leg up/one leg grounded, and hand positions palm inward/outward or up/down reinforces the afore-stated dichotic examples.  The halo is suggestive of the ethereal or the cosmos with the flames representing an active voice of the Divine (breath of life), the glory of the Shiva, circle of life, or spirits being granted permission to witness a sacred dance. 

Further evidence of the image being the god, Shiva, is the phallic-shaped crown ("linga") in direct alignment with the body's vertical central axis and apex flame.  The linga represents the "axis of the universe" (Maxwell 235).  SN elicits no delineation between class, gender, or socio-economic status of the Hindu, but asserts the religious belief in the will for the Divine as ultimate "completeness."  The artist probably used traditional dance movements in the Hindu culture to create the SN's pose in order to keep the continuity/relationship between god and man.  The small being beneath Shiva's right foot may be representative of a victory over another force or being, albeit person or concept such as evil, dark, sorrow, etc.  "Nataraja, the dancing Shiva, similarly represents the endless cycle of creation and destruction, while at the same time the steps of this cosmic dance lead the worshipper to liberation from it" (Maxwell 92).  Therefore, as both a religious piece and a work of art, SN straddles the line between the secular and the sacred, to be appreciated by all who observe it.  SN represents the dual nature of all things created eliminating the idea of any theme of class, gender, or socio-economic status.  As a religious piece, SN may be integral in single-point meditation to draw connection to the Divine. Or, the sculpture may exist as an intermediary between wo/men and God.

SN represents a delicate combination of impromptu and control wrapped up in an androgynous being that is neither male nor female, but rather the transcendence of an earthly body on the journey into/with/to the Divine or Universe.  The Hindu culture, as with must civilizations, believes there is purpose in/for life. The definition of what life is differs from culture to culture, yet any class, gender, or socioeconomic class can appreciate an aesthetic aspect of SN.  Shiva is universality and anyone can dance.


 Works Cited

Veronica Ions, Indian Mythology (Middlesex, England:  Newnes Books, 1983), 42, 44, 46-47.

Margaret Lazzari and Dona Schlesier, Exploring Art:  A Global, Thematic Approach, 2nd Ed. (Belmont, California:  Wadsworth, 2005), 228-229.

T.S. Maxwell, the Gods of Asia:  Image, Text and Meaning (Oxford: Oxford Universtiy Press, 1998), 22-23, 27, 48, 255, 267, 23-24, 57-58, 92, 235.

George Mitchell, Hindu Art and Architecture (New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 2000), 108, 130, 132.

Vandana Nadkarni, Art History 110 (Clinton, New Jersey: Class Notes, 2010), 09/20/10, 11/16/10.

Marilyn Stokstad, Art History, 3rd Ed. (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey:  Pearson Education, Inc., 2008), 331.

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