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: A Bronze Nataraja


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Through the generosity of Mrs. E. C. Gale the Institute has been fortunate in securing a fine example of medieval Indian sculpture. The figure, a bronze dancing Siva, has been exhibited in the Near East Room for some time, but has only recently been added to the Institute's permanent collection.The dancing Siva, or Nataraja, in which this aspect of the god is known, is the manifestation of joy in creation. To his Hindu worshippers he represents cosmic activity, creation, growth, destruction and rebirth. All activity springs from the god Siva, and he expresses all activity in his dance as Nataraja.Siva is a member of the Hindu trinity of supreme beings which includes also Visnu and Devi. To the worshippers of Siva, who are known as Saivas, Siva is supreme above the other two. In his oldest form he was the god of destruction. Later he became the god of all activity. He is known to his followers in many aspects, as a philosopher, the great Yogi, as boon bestower and destroyer, and as Nataraja, the prince of dancers.Siva knows one hundred and eight dances, but the Nataraja dance which he performs in our bronze is better known than the others. It was probably derived from the dance of an early aboriginal mountain god, and gradually developed into the form now represented in all important Saiva temples, where it is placed in a special Natma Sabha or dancing hall. An amusing legend of the origin of the dance is told in the Sanskrit text, Purija Purana."In the Forest of Taragam there dwelt multitudes of heretical rsis, or sages, followers of the Mimamsa. Siva proceeded there to confute them, accompanied by Visnu disguised as a beautiful woman. The rsis were first led to dispute among themselves, but their anger was soon directed against Siva, and they endeavored to destroy him by means of incantations. A fierce tiger was produced in the magic fires and rushed upon him, but he seized it in his hands and stripped off its skin with the nail of his little finger and wrapped it around himself as a garment. The sages renewed their offerings and produced a monstrous serpent which Siva took in his hands and wreathed about his neck like a garland. Then he began to dance; but there rushed upon him a last monster in the shape of a malignant dwarf, Muyalaka. Upon him the god pressed the tip of his foot and broke the creature's back, so that it writhed upon the ground. Then he resumed his dance, beheld by gods and rsis."This in Hindu theology was the beginning of Nataraja's dance, and he has been dancing ever since in Chitambaram, which is the center of the universe.All of Nataraja's gestures and accessories have particular significance for the Hindu, and every image of Nataraja should be nearly identical with every other image. Gestures and accessories were formulated through legend and tradition, and descriptions were finally written down, with those of all other gods, during the early mediaeval period. These Sanskirt texts, known as the Agamas, were the guidebooks of all future image makers. They provided directions for making every type of Hindu god, prescribing even the relative distances between arms and legs.Nataraja, as the representation of cosmic activity, illustrates the "five activities," creation, protection, destruction, incarnation and salvation. Creation proceeds from the drum in the right hand, as sound is the first manifestation of energy. The abhava (fear not) position of the lower left hand signifies protection. The fire in the upper left hand is the symbol of destruction. The foot placed on Muyalaka, spirit of evil, implies incarnation, while the raised foot bestows salvation. The third eye in the center of the forehead, nearly obliterated in our statue, is the eye of wisdom. The earrings are of different design, one is a masculine and the other a feminine ornament, implying the male and female natures of Nataraja. The hair is braided and arranged in a headdress, while the winglike projections on either side of the head represent Nataraja's hair flung out in the frenzy of the dance. Cobras are twined about three of Nataraja's arms. The fourth cobra has fallen to the ground where Muyalaka plays with it.Our Nataraja was found in a small town near Pondicherry, where he had been worshipped by the natives for the past six or seven hundred years. To move Nataraja the consent of each of the villagers was first obtained, but this was not accomplished until a shiny, new image had been provided to replace the old one. Still the Hindus hesitated. Finally, after each of them had prayed separately to the prince of dancers and he had consented to remove himself from the old image to the new one, the townspeople agreed to sell their god.Even after this ceremony the natives fearfully refused to touch the statue. Long poles were inserted through its base and the bronze was cautiously placed in a cart. None of the natives could be induced to touch it until it had been carried many miles from the village and Nataraja's spirit had had ample time to transport itself from one statue to the other.The exact period of Nataraja images is difficult to determine. The older ones are full and solid with round faces and heavy features, in contrast to the attenuated shapes and oval faces of later examples. From this we may consider the Institute's Nataraja to be of fairly early date. Authorities believe that it may have been made as early as the XIII century, which would place our figure among the oldest in the country.There are only three other Natarajas in American museums. The figure acquired last year by the Brooklyn Museum dates from the XII to the XV century. Another more elegant dancer at the Boston Museum was not made before the XV century and the figure in the Pennsylvania Museum is probably of the same period. Nataraja images are naturally very scarce. Many of them have been already destroyed in India. The Hindus so reverence the remaining statues that it is nearly impossible to secure them.Referenced Work of Art
  1. A bronze Nataraja or Dancing Siva, XIII century (?). Gift of Mrs. E. C. Gale
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Source: "A Bronze Nataraja," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 18, no. 22 (June, 1929): 106-108.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009