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The Lord of Dance: History and symbolism of Shiva’s Nataraja form

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The Lord of Dance: History and symbolism of Shiva’s Nataraja form

Context- Greeting G20 leaders in front of Bharat Mandapam in New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan this weekend will be a magnificent 27-foot, Nataraja, the tallest statue of Lord Shiva’s dancing form in the world.

(Credits- Indian Express)

The statue is an ashtadhatu (eight-metal alloy) piece of art, crafted by sculptors from Swamimalai in Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. Weighing about 18 tonnes, it was hauled across the country on a 36-wheel trailer.

The Cholas and Nataraja

  • All three temples the Bharat Mandapam Nataraja statue is inspired from were originally constructed by the Cholas, who at their peak around the 9th-11th centuries AD, ruled over much of peninsular India.
  • The Cholas were great patrons of art and high culture. Historian of art and culture and Emeritus Professor at the University of Sussex Partha Mitter wrote in ‘Indian Art’ (2001): “Chola art and architecture in South India was a product of a prosperous, highly efficient empire during the period of its greatest territorial expansion.”
  • The Cholas were devout Shaivites, building elaborate Shiva temples (like the one in Thanjavur) across their territories.
  • Although Shiva was first portrayed in sculpture as Nataraja in the fifth century AD, its present, world-famous form evolved under the Cholas. “The Nataraja image in its various forms…holds the first place among Chola bronzes,”

Shiva as the Lord of Dance

  • Shiva, as he is worshipped today, evolved from the Vedic deity Rudra. In many ways, he is the most complex god of the Puranic pantheon.
  • “He is death and time (Mahakala) which destroys all things. But he is also a great ascetic and the patron of ascetics generally,” the great Indologist A L Basham wrote in his classic ‘The Wonder that was India’ (1954).
  • Shiva is also the ‘Lord of Dance’ or Nataraja, who is said to have “invented no less than 108 different dances, some calm and gentle, others fierce, orgiastic and terrible,” Basham wrote.
  • In a typical portrayal, Nataraja is encompassed by flaming aureole or halo, which Sastri interpreted as “the circle of the world which he [Nataraja] both fills and oversteps”.
  • In his upper right hand He holds a damru (a hand drum), whose sounds “draw all creatures into his rhythmic motion”, and in his upper left arm, he holds agni (fire), which he can wield to destroy the universe.
  • Yet, amidst all the destructive symbolism, Nataraja also reassures, and shows Shiva as the Protector. With his front right hand, he makes the ‘abhayamudra’ (a gesture that allays fear), and with his raised feet, and with his front left arm he points to his raised feet, asking his devotees to seek refuge at his feet.

The lost wax method

  • The sculptors who created the 27-foot-tall Bharat Mandapam Nataraja trace their lineage 34 generations back to the Cholas. The process used has also been passed down from the time. “The crafting process adopted was the traditional ‘lost-wax’ casting method, indigenous to the Chola era,”
  • The lost-wax method can be dated back to at least 6,000 years back — a copper amulet crafted using this method at a neolithic site in Mehrgarh, Balochistan (present day Pakistan) is dated to circa 4,000 BC. Notably, the Dancing Girl of Mohenjo Daro was also crafted using this technique.
  • In this method, first, a detailed wax model is made. This is then covered with a paste made of alluvial soil found on the banks of the Cauvery river that runs through the heart of what was Chola country.
  • After this coating, applied multiple times, has dried, the figure is exposed to high heat, causing the wax to burn away, leaving a hollow, intricately carved mould. This is ultimately filled by molten metal to produce the sculpture.

Syllabus- Prelims; Current Affairs

Source- Indian Express

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