This unique image form, no representation of a human or divine form ever or anywhere reflecting this level of energy, agility or action, or even human anatomy : the figure’s curves, twists, fluidity and contours, universally known as Nataraja Shiva, represents Lord Shiva as engaged in dance classified in iconographic tradition as ‘Ananda-Tandava’ or just ‘Tandava’ – exclusively a Shiva’s dance-form. No art tradition, medium, or human imagination, has ever conceived and created a form, anywhere in the world, that precedes, succeeds or is similar to Nataraja form. Not merely a piece with such rare skill as this one, even a routine Nataraja sculpture, a metal cast, wood-carving or any, reveals the force, agility, or act hardly ever seen in visual art forms. This attributes to Nataraja images a distinction that no other image form can claim.
An example of rare skill, just a single leg and that too bent at sixty degree angle holds the entire weight and volume of a figure quite tall and wide and full of movement with various parts passionately gesticulated and flung into space with great force. Besides, it does not have a level base under it but just an uneven back of a tiny humanized figure identified in Nataraja iconography as Apasamarapurusha – the demon of inertia. The movement of the left leg raised almost at hundred-twenty degree angle, all four arms thrown into space with great force and locks of hair waving straight and unsupported, could be simply unmanageable but for the great skill of the artist. Usually Nataraja icons have around them a strong ‘prabhavali’ – fire-arch, consisting of flames of fire, that besides framing and supporting the image has significant symbolic dimensions. This image does not have even a fire-arch around, and the entire figure stands unsupported all parts just mutually balanced.
Full of divine lustre the image of Lord Shiva, mythically conceived and realistically cast, with its right leg placed on the figure of Apasamarapurusha, and left, turned to the right and shot into space, has been installed on a lotus pedestal. On figure’s face enshrines a divine bearing and in the anatomy – unfurling locks of hair and various body parts, the ecstasy of dance. Though all four arms of the figure are gesticulated corresponding to moves of dance, each also has a role, different from other, as also different significance. The upper right hand is holding a ‘damaru’ – double drum, the source of ‘nada’ – sound, in Nataraja iconography, cosmic sound, the upper left, the flame of fire symbolic of divine energy that Tandava generates, the lower right reveals the gesture of ’abhaya’ – redeeming from fear assuring that creation would follow dissolution, and the lower left, the gesture of dissolution. Excellent anatomical proportions, well-defined features, elaborate ornamentation with most distinctive forms of various bands, especially those on arms and belly and an elaborately crested crown define the image of the great Lord.
Nataraja – king of ‘natas’, stage-performers to include dance, Natesh – the supreme ‘nata’, and Nratya-Dakshina-murti – the most accomplished dancer, are epithets of Shiva, the ever first master of dance. Dance was Shiva’s divine act he used to destroy as also to delight, his mode of creation; he created in delight and through it. The tradition classified his dance for dissolution as ‘Tandava’, more often as ‘Ananda-Tandava’ for he performed it with divine rapture knowing that creation was awaiting to succeed and emerge. His dance to delight has been classified as ‘lasya’, the dance that revealed great aesthetic beauty, though no regular form has been attributed to it. More popular in South and most powerfully sculpted or cast by South Indian artists/artisans Nataraja iconography is often attributed to South as one of Shiva forms in South Indian tradition and the distinction of South Indian artists; however, whatever their source Nataraja statues of Shiva, not so much as a votive image but for its rare form and aesthetic beauty, beautify chambers of millions of art-lovers world over beyond sectarian line.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.