As a longtime museum educator, I relish the opportunity to teach in the galleries. Since arriving at the Freer|Sackler a year and a half ago, I repeatedly return to the Shiva Nataraja, currently on view in the Freer’s galleries dedicated to the arts of the Indian subcontinent and the Himalayas.
Shiva is a Hindu god who has many manifestations; as Nataraja, he is a cosmic dancer vigorously performing the “dance of bliss.” A basic question I ask visitors is, “How did the Chola artist who created this Shiva more than 1,000 years ago express in bronze that he was Lord of the Dance?”
Before they answer, I ask them to walk around the sculpture and observe Shiva from multiple angles and perspectives. I may ask visitors to try to adopt Shiva’s pose and feel how difficult it is to maintain one’s balance.
After taking time to look, they note that his left foot is raised. Then they might notice that his right foot is balanced on top of a small misshapen figure known as “the demon of ignorance.”
Visitors often observe Shiva’s face with its slight smile and piercing eyes (including a third eye, which he uses to bring light into the universe). When I ask groups to describe his expression, they respond with words such as “calm,” “serene,” “peaceful,” and “composed,” and they often note that his face is the evocation of stillness. His hair, however—in matted locks (jata) worn by religious ascetics—flows around his head, propelled into rhythm through the energy of his dance.
Groups realize that Shiva has four arms and that each hand represents a different gesture (mudra). For example, his lower right hand illustrates the gesture meaning “Be without fear.” Visitors wonder at the small fire in one of his left hands—a symbol of creation and destruction. This is no ordinary dance!
Museum-goers often conclude that Shiva Nataraja is Lord of the Dance in part because he does what is difficult with ease and grace, and that his dance has great meaning beyond the physical act of movement. He defeats a demon while balanced effortlessly. His face evokes calm and serenity although he is dancing vigorously. Ignorance is crushed; light is restored to the universe.