Without a shadow of doubt, the most iconic image of Hinduism for the Western world is that of Lord Nataraja, or, the Lord of Dances. They could see, at once, exceptional beauty and the profound underlying meaning.

The Beauty of Lord Nataraja

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) is deemed the progenitor of modern sculpture – his works including the Thinker, and, The Burghers of Calais are among the greatest modern works of art. He also sculpted some great bronzes. He derived inspiration from Chola bronzes and having carefully studied the image of Lord Nataraja, he wrote a scholarly essay. This is what he had to say 100 years ago:

“What we have is the divinity of human form, with the full blown life overwhelming. What a talent to take pride in human body!

The beauty in bronze is immutable. You can feel the motionless muscles, tensed together, ready to surge forward if the light changes position. The shadow gets closer and closer, working its way over the masterpiece, giving it charm.

Like something divinely ordered, everything is in place. We understand the rotation of the arm even when it is motionless by looking at the shoulder blade, the way it protrudes, the ribcage, the admirable way the ribs are attached…And the flank that continues this torso, constrained here, gripped there, then widening out to the two thighs, delicate legs that disport themselves on the ground. The legs with their stretched muscles convey enormous strength.

The hand gesture is graceful enough to compete with the Medici Venus….

According to artists, the pose is familiar: yet nothing about it is banal, because nature intervenes so much. Above all there are things we do not see: unknown depths, the wellsprings of life. There is grace in elegance; soft yet most powerful. ”

Auguste Rodin goes on, as only a great sculpture like him can, looking at and appreciating every detail – the mouth, the lips, the nose, the eyes (conveying tranquil joy of calm), the ears, the eyebrows, the chin, etc. ‘The soul can be imprisoned in this bronze form captured for centuries, longing for eternity on this mouth, the eyes that see and speak.’

Having said a lot, Rodin concludes, ‘Words fail me in describing the perfect embodiment of rhythmic movement!’

The Philosophy underpinning Lord Nataraja

The Western world, of course, did not underestimate the philosophical and religious underpinnings. The publication that accompanied an exhibition of rare Chola bronzes in the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 2007, singled out the image of Lord Nataraja as the epitome of ‘Indian-ness’. It goes on to say that Hindu vision is based on the concept of Brahman, the unbound, the manifestation of supreme consciousness as a boundless, vibrating energy in constant modification that generates, maintains and puts an end to every product of creation. The purpose of the artiste is to give form to the divine principles. Among the many types of dances, the most famous is the Ananda Tandavam, the dance performed in Chidambaram. Through the dance of bliss, He dances the world into extinction only to dance it back into existence, as part of the cyclical time system of India. As Nataraja, he stands in theatrical splendour on his bent right leg, while the gracefully poised left leg is raised high across his body. In his left rear hand he holds fire, signifying destruction, while his right rear hand holds a damaru drum, whose sound denotes creation. His right front hand is raised in a gesture of protection.

Lord Nataraja stands serene and assured, the master of Universe, within a circular prabha aureole framed with five-tipped flames that represent the oscillating universe. The lord rests his right foot on the back of the dwarfish demonic figure of Mushalagan, representing darkness and ignorance to be overcome.

Frijitof Capra, in his famous book, The Tao of Physics, examines Ananda Tandava in the context of contemporary Western understanding of science. According to him the dynamic view of the universe, as envisioned by the Indian mystics, is similar to that of modern Physics. Physics has shown that the essential quality of matter is movement and rhythm and all matter is involved in a cosmic dance. Much the same way, this image of ‘ananda tandava’ or dance of bliss is symbol of nature. The energy dance, in Capra’s words, is ‘a pulsating process of creation and destruction’. Chidambaram, according our belief, represents void or ‘akash’ among the five natural elements, the others being, water, earth, fire and wind. Capra find this appropriate because he sees in the Cosmic dance, not only matter but all void participating, creating and destroying energy patterns without end.

Incontrovertibly, as Coomaraswamy says, it is ‘poetry, but science.’

14th July, 2013, is one of the two most important dates in the year for Lord Nataraja – ‘Ani Thirumanjanam’. In connection with the event, South Indian Society, is organizing a lecture –‘Sitthamellam Sivamayame’ by Mrs Desa Mangaiyarkarasi, at 630 pm on 13th Saturday, at Bhavan, West Kensington, London, W14 9HE. All are invited. Proceeds from the event are in aid of victims of Uttarakhand Floods.