India: Shiva Nataraja (Lord of the Dance)
“Ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum…” beats the drum in Nataraja’s hand, as he shakes it, giving rhythm to his dancing feet and sound to his image. Shiva, the auspicious one, is manifest here as the Lord of the Dance, a form he has taken not to entertain but perform cosmic work. Shiva Nataraja is crushing ignorance, presented by the sculptor as a demon under his feet who looks up benevolently at the god, even as his own ruin is in progress.
Nataraja is one of the most important, visually thrilling forms of the Hindu god Shiva. Artists in the Tamil region of southern India began to make this form of Shiva in the early tenth century, with the patronage of kings, inspired by poetry written by ardent devotees and using skills in metal craft developed over hundreds of years. Once made and brought to life through ritual, Nataraja lived in the temple, moving out daily and during festivals, gracing his devotees within the temple and in the streets, as he processed through the town with song and ritual.
Appearing more than a thousand years ago, Nataraja’s importance has endured as a god and a popular icon. Today he is worshipped in major temples and circulates in public life. Nataraja represents Indian tradition, cosmic principles, Tamil identity, and classical dance. Artists use his image to sell products, critique society, and present philosophical concepts. Nataraja is truly a god for all time.