The visual qualities of a Chola-dynasty bronze sculpture of Shiva Nataraja depended on a number of factors, particularly the skill and experience of the artist. Chola artists did create religious sculptures with distinctive variations. However, the sacred importance of Shiva Nataraja required sculptors to follow guidelines from key religious and artistic texts.
During the Chola period, a series of texts called the Agamasdescribed appropriate temple rituals and iconography related to Shiva. These texts also described the aniconic, or non-representational, image of Shiva, in the form of a pillar, or lingam. Many Chola temples held linga, along with other movable bronze representations of Shiva for processional purposes.
To achieve the perfect anatomical proportions for the sculpture, Chola artists would have consulted the shilpa shastras. These texts recommend flora and fauna and material objects as models for parts of the human body. For instance, a male torso must trace the outline of a bull’s face viewed frontally, giving it a narrow waist. A female torso would emulate the hourglass-shaped damaru drum and her arms would evoke bamboo stems. The goal of the shilpa shastras was not to communicate how to achieve a realistic human form but the idealized, divine body prized in Indian art.
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