EssaysWeekend

Shiva the Inscrutable

Shiva dances a dance of sheer bliss.

Nataraja, Shiva as the Lord of Dance (11th century; South India, Tamil Nadu, Chola period, 900-1200s), bronze; overall: 44 1/2 x 40 3/16 x 11 13/16 inches; base: 13 3/4 x 9 7/16 inches; the Cleveland Museum of Art, purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund (image via clevelandart.org)

CLEVELAND — All praise then to the Lord of the Dance! Shiva-the-many-armed never stops his intricately weaving and mesmerizing routine, the knotting and the unknotting of his arms, the nigh-on impossibly rubbery contortions of his wrists and hands. See the surprising peek-a-a-boo of that hand which faces us, palm out …

He can dance the world into being, and then unmake it again. He will dance to please his wife. He will dance to please himself. He will dance a dance of sheer bliss. He will dance to see off demons. He will also dance to show off the hundred and odd poses of Indian classical dance. No one has ever stopped him.

Between the 8th and the 11th centuries, Shiva, who was born in the snow-capped Himalayas, danced his way down into a part of southern India more familiarly known to us these days as Tamil Nadu, where the Chola Dynasty held sway, and his image as the Lord of Dance was cast in bronze by local craftsmen, whose skills have been passed down, generation by generation, to the bronze casters of today.

Working in the side streets of Thanjavur and elsewhere, in small, hot workshops, they made these devotional objects via the ancient ‘lost-wax process’ – which means that a mold is made from an original wax sculpture. When heated, the wax melts and is poured away. Molten bronze is then poured into the cavity, and the outside mould removed. Each object is unique.

In this 11th-century bronze housed in the Cleveland Museum of Art, Shiva dances inside a circlet of flames. The flames seem to lighten the whole, to give the entire ensemble a touch of additional liftoff or magical-cum-mystical puff-smokery.

His right foot crushes a demon. In his right hand he holds a drum — its boom represents the resonance of creation itself — and in his left, fire, which ravishes the world. His dance feels like an act of gymnastic brilliance too because he appears to be standing steadfastly and assuredly on one leg, side-on to us, on the circle’s narrow rim, with nothing but his own miraculous powers of balance to stop him falling away into nothingness.

And yet the dance also appears to be a very slow one, with each rising of the leg or turn of the wrist carefully weighed and considered, as if he is making sacred semaphore signals.

This slowness, Shiva is surely aware, also gives the onlooker ample opportunity to admire the beauty of his body — how that risen left leg beguiles us! — and to consider what degree of muscular control he has over it. He is not only the Lord of the Dance. He is also the Lord and the complete master of himself, utterly self-possessed in his inscrutability.

Yes, there is much that is human here, but there is also the distance that the streamlined features of the face seems to suggest, a kind of almost mask-like stylization that Pablo Picasso might have regarded as thrillingly primitive and energizingly Other in, say, 1907.

This is a god dancing for you, whose limbs possess the beckoning suppleness of a lover’s. But do not come too close. Admire at a distance.

Inside this bounding circle, which feels to be the touchable limits of the cosmos, he dances eternally, unstoppably — filling, defining, even bidding the cosmos to follow the movements of his dance.

And yet, for all that Shiva is one of the greatest gods of Hinduism, this is a quite small representation of him.

That fact wakes us up to the understanding that this particular Shiva is a portable deity. Just as he is eternally on the move in the Hindu scriptures, so this bronze representation of him (until it found itself doomed to remain a stationary object of enduring aesthetic pleasure in an American museum forever thereafter), was likely to have been on the move.

To this day, at moments of festival, svelte, young, beautiful, self-delighting, top-knotted Hindu priests can still be seen carrying their representations of Shiva, borne at shoulder height on hefty wooden palanquins, around great temple complexes such as the one at Chidambaram, dedicated to the lord of the dance…

And it was at Chidambaram that I saw them bearing gods such as this one on their shoulders, eternally, timelessly, and thought to myself that I could have been any one of innumerable onlookers, stretching back more than 900 years…

Nataraja, Shiva as the Lord of Dance(11th century; South India, Tamil Nadu, Chola period, 900-1200s) is in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art (11150 East Blvd, Cleveland, Ohio); purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund.

This essay is one of an occasional series, Great Works, devoted to single works of art

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