Indian art has for long been ruled by religious motifs. From the ancient times to the current era every form of art has a special topmost place for the bearers of religion. Lord Shiva who is famous for his dance the ‘thandavam’, is as much an art lover as the artists love to depict him. He is popularly known as ‘Natraja’, which literally means the ‘raja’ (King) of ‘Natiyam’ (Dance). All the Indian temples and particularly those of South India flaunt images of Shiva-the cosmic dancer in various forms of art, the most common being the celebrated bronzes that are the tiara to all the other items of display in many-a-museums. Shiva – the destroyer is among the 3 triad of energy that form the very base of the Hindu faith. Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance form native to the state of Tamil Nadu has most of its moves inspired from Shiva’s dance.
The bronze statue of Nataraja is encircled in a sphere of the cosmic fire. The image radiates innumerable signifiers and readers of art read them in myriad ways. One of the vastly discussed aspects is the constant creation and destruction of the universe. His four hands; the two upper ones and the lower have their specific significance. The lower left hand calls for spirituality and the contentment that generates when one gives up ones baser wants. The lower right hand encourages the followers to perform good deeds while the upper right hand bears a damru that depicts time as it slips away. The upper left hand holds fire a symbol of destruction; thus the left and right upper hands demonstrate the creation and passage of time through the damru while the fire depicts the anger and destruction Shiva encompasses if need be.
The birth of the Nataraja bronzes is age-old but tracing the place and time of origin with 100% precision is nearly impossible. The farthest the archaeologists have wandered is the 11th century. The first image of Natraja was found at Thillai Nataraja Temple at Chidambaram, but the historians do not establish it as the place where it was first made. Chidambaram is though often cited as the birthplace of the Bronze Nataraja. Shiva, who is usually represented in the form of Lingam, is rarely sculpted with human-like characteristics, thus this bronze deity holds a special place in the hearts of his devotees.
It is not only the Indian subcontinent that holds this image high but across cultures and lands the Nataraja image has gained immense popularity and words of appreciation. Fritjof Capra, a well known American Physicist relates the cycle of creation and destruction to all forms of matter. CERN, European Centre for Nuclear Research, Geneva also flaunts a very tall statue that was installed in 2004.
This bronze sculpture has lived at least through the Pallava, Chola, Pandava Dynasties till the present age and shall also continue to rule the Indian art for ages to come.