“Inwardly, motion is the most primordial action of existence. Without this simple thing there would be no universe […]. Light is motion. Thought is motion. Atoms are motion. Life is motion.” Subramuniyaswami.
Destruction and rebirth
Wandering, with a good friend from Nepal, in the corridors of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, we came across a special statue that I was not familiar with and as she informed me is called Shiva Nataraja.
The god Shiva of the Hindu religion has many forms but that of Nataraja prevailed as one of its main deities and became known worldwide. Its name also testifies to its basic quality. ‘Nata’ means dance or performance and ‘Raja’ means king or lord. The ‘king of the dance’ is regarded and worshiped as the source of all motion in the universe, whose dance of destruction, represented by the arch of flames, accompanies the dissolution of the universe at the end of an age.
Shiva belongs to a triad of divine energy within the universe, according to the Hindu religion. They are Brahma, the benevolent creator of the universe, Vishnu, the perceptive preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer. You may wonder why a god who is about destroying the universe is worshiped so much. In life, as in all things, the end is not always necessarily bad and many times it is necessary to give birth to something new, often better. Therefore the power of Shiva Nataraja is not negative but its effect is expansive. In the philosophy of Hinduism there is the idea that everything must come to a natural end in order to start all over again.
Shiva Nataja and dance
The same is true in art. In the mind and work of every artist there is a perpetual cycle of beginnings and endings that often have no clear separation. What is the primary idea that started a project? When is it finished and ready for presentation? Does an artist ever feel that they are ready or are they simply forced to put an end to it at some point because new ideas are born?
But why did a dancing god prevail? In classical Indian culture, dance is a demanding physical exercise. Dance prepares the mind for spiritual leaps: The dancer enters into a trance, the dancer and the dance become one, reproducing the union of the individual soul with the transcendent divine. And at this point let’s all of us dancers take 5 minutes to recall moments from our dancing past where we can identify with that particular Indian belief. Have we ever felt like reaching a trance and connecting with something closer to the spiritual when we move?
Shiva Nataraja’s dance represents his five actions (panchakritya). Creation, protection, destruction, embodiment and liberation. The purpose of this dance is to free people from the idea of ‘self’ and the material world. Mainly in a group choreography we free ourselves from the idea of ‘self’, maybe not completely, but we move from the level of our individual existence to that of our participation in a whole observing how our body affects it. As dancers, we may be fully aware of the moving body, so we do not completely free ourselves from the material world, but by connecting our energy with the energy of our fellow dancers, with the aim of synchronizing but also the shared enjoyment of the action, we achieve a sense of the unreal.
The story of Shiva Nataraya
The central religious story behind Nataraja takes place in the Tillai forest of Chidambaram, described in the songs of the seventh-century poet-saints as the setting for a variety of divine and demonic activities. Shiva came to the forest in the form of Bhikshatana, a wandering beggar, to deceive and humiliate the sages who neglected proper worship. In the ensuing battle, the sages send creatures, such as a demon and a snake, to attack him. Shiva dramatically defeats these malevolent forces and performs the victorious ‘dance of bliss’ (Ananda Tandava). Ultimately, the story places Shiva at the top of the Hindu divine hierarchy.
The city of Chidambaram is considered the earthly home of Shiva Nataraja and the holy place where he housed the dance of creation. This city is considered a great center of worship of the gods in India and is characterized as the center of the universe and the human heart.
According to James Lochtefeld, Nataraja symbolizes the connection between religion and the arts and represents Shiva as the lord of the dance, encompassing all creation, destruction and everything in between. The depiction of Nataraja incorporates contrasting elements. The fearless celebration of the joys of dancing while surrounded by fire, untouched by the forces of ignorance and malice, suggesting a spirituality that transcends all duality. In short, through his dance he achieves the impossible, combining seemingly unprofitable elements. Does this remind us, a little more than we might think, of what we strive for and often succeed in our own dance?
The circle of fire
surrounding Shiva Nataraja is the concentrated mass of the universe, time and space, whose perpetual cycle of destruction and rebirth moves in harmony with the beat of the god’s drum and his footsteps. It symbolizes the energy that fuels the god’s dance and the cosmic effects that flow from it.
In his upper right arm
he holds the ‘damaru’ the drum whose rhythm combines the action of creation and the passage of time.
His lower right arm
it is raised with the fingers up and the palm facing the observer in the ‘abhava mudra’ gesture. With this gesture he says to the supplicant “Fear not, for those who follow the path of virtue will have my blessing.”
The lower left arm
of Shiva is stretched diagonally in front of his sternum, palm down towards his raised left leg. This classical dance hand position is called ‘elephant hand’ and shows the perception of spiritual teaching. The combination of hand and foot signifies spiritual grace and fulfillment through meditation and mastery of one’s lower desires and spiritual liberation in general.
In the upper left arm
he holds ‘agni’ which is the fire of destruction which annihilates all that has come into being through the sound of the drum.
The right leg
of Shiva stands atop a coiled figure that appears to have dwarfish features. This figure is called ‘Apasmara’ and is the embodiment of ignorance. Shiva’s foot on it therefore shows the fight against that stubborn obstinate ignorance which prevents us from attaining true wisdom and keeps us in a state of slavery to the illusions of the world.
of Shiva, which is yogi hair, pours out into space within the ring of fire, which constitutes the universe. During this whole process of chaos and renewal, the face of god remains calm.
Tracing back to the origins of dance as a sacred activity, Zimmer observes that “dance is an ancient form of magic.” He goes on to explain the power at the root of the sacred dance, noting that through the movement of the dance, the participant is “enhanced into a being endowed with supernatural powers. His personality is transformed. Like yoga, the dance evokes ecstasy, the experience of the divine, the realization of one’s spiritual nature and finally merging into the divine essence”. This story may be strange to us who have grown up in a different religious context. Or even strange because we do not embrace any religion. Whatever the case, this story presents an interesting philosophy about dance and many spiritual elements that many dancers could identify with.