Shiva [SHE-vah], the Hindu god of life, death, and rebirth, appears here in his most transcendent state as Nataraja [NAH-tah-RAH-ja], or Lord of the Dance. Surrounded by a circle of flames and holding the flame of death and a drum, Shiva symbolizes both creation and destruction. As he dances and pounds the creative rhythm of the cosmos, the universe is set in motion, and when he stops, the universe ends, only to be recreated once the dancing resumes.
Shiva is the patron deity of theatrical arts, and in the Hindu tradition, music and dance are viewed as a pathway to divinity. Worshipers use performance as a means to honor the god, and Shiva’s dance symbolizes a promise to his followers of release from the endless wheel of reincarnation.
Shiva [SHE-vah], the god of life, death, and rebirth in the Hindu tradition, embodies seemingly contradictory gentle and wild natures, making him an intimidating figure. Shiva can destroy or break down everything, thus releasing the energy necessary for new growth and recreation of the world. Shiva plays many roles, including lover and husband to the goddess Parvati [PAHR-vah-tee], ascetic yogi, creator, and destroyer. In Hindu works of art, Shiva often appears in one of several manifestations that highlight the various aspects of his character.
Shiva is the patron deity of theatrical arts, and in the Hindu tradition, music and dance are viewed as a pathway to divinity. Shiva carries attributes, or objects that hold special meaning that are used to identify a figure or gain insight into his/her purpose or character. In this sculpture, Shiva holds the flame of death and a drum on which he beats out the universal rhythm.
This sculpture depicts the Hindu god Shiva as Nataraja [NAH-tah-RAH-ja], Lord of the Dance. Shiva symbolizes both creation and destruction. As he dances the universe is set in motion, and when he stops, the universe ends, only to be recreated once the dancing resumes.
Shiva as Nataraja appears as an idealized youth dancing atop a dwarf who represents the ignorance, earthly desire, and cycle of rebirth that imprisons humans. The snake-like tendrils that form Shiva’s hair represent the sacred Ganges River; they hold Ganga [GAHN-gah], the goddess of the river. The crescent moon in his hair references a story describing how jealous ascetics attempted to injure Shiva with a moon sickle, which he thereafter wore as a hair ornament. A vertical third eye on Shiva’s forehead identifies the god and is kept shut to prevent its fiery power from scorching all of creation.
Shiva has four arms, the upper two of which hold objects in their hands. The hand of his extended right arm holds the drum on which he beats out the rhythm of the universe. His upper left hand holds a small flame that reminds the viewer of Shiva’s power to destroy the universe. The empty hands of Shiva’s lower arms are brought together in the elephant gesture representing strength, and the right hand is raised in a gesture meaning “fear not.” Shiva’s raised left leg emphasizes that he is in motion, dancing to the rhythm of the universe. It also symbolizes his liberation from earthly desires and the cycle of rebirth. For his devout followers, this gesture is a promise of liberation.
The central figure of the Hindu god Shiva as Nataraja is surrounded by a circle of flames that suggest the continuous flow of energy that forms the universe, and the lotus base on which the god stands symbolizes eternal renewal.
Temple Art and Architecture
After the establishment of the Gupta [GUP-tah] kingdom in the fourth century A.D., Hindu art began to flourish. The first Hindu temples were constructed and modeled after earlier Buddhist monuments. Hindu temples are designed to represent a diagram of the universe. Temples take on the form of a three-dimensional mandala, a sacred diagram that is oriented to the cardinal directions and contains patterns and images intended to aid viewers along the path to understanding and enlightenment. Chola Dynasty (c. 860-1279) temples were significantly larger and more elaborate than previous temples, beginning a tradition of large complexes or “temple-cities” that include many smaller structures in addition to the central temple.
Many sculptures decorate the interior of Hindu temples, most famously bronzes from the Chola period. For example, temple niches often house images of the Hindu deity to whom the temple is devoted. Hindus believe that the spirit of the deity represented, such as Shiva in the case of Shiva Nataraja, can enter sculptures to receive prayers and offerings. Thus, these bronze images are treated as living entities and are carefully attended to by temple priests. Priests often adorn the bronzes with silk garments, jewels, and flowers. These objects preside over a variety of religious events in the temple and receive offerings of food and incense. Though typically residing in a temple for worship, sculptures such as Shiva Nataraja are sometimes removed and brought outside to appear in festivals dedicated to the god. The bronze sculpture is nearly hidden behind the layers of silk cloth and garlands of flowers used to create a temple chariot. These chariots are carried by male attendants as part of a larger procession. Music would announce the arrival of Shiva, and a crowd of chanting male and dancing female worshipers would gather to gain audience with the deity embodied in the sculpture.
Many stone sculptures were created to decorate the exterior walls of these temples as well. Sculptures decorating the temple serve the dual purpose of familiarizing worshipers with the appearance and stories of Hinduism’s pantheon of gods and goddesses and welcoming the worshiper into the temple. For example, many doorjambs that frame the entrance to a temple offer a visual summary of the cults honored inside. Though most Hindu objects in museums today appear unpainted, these sculptures would have originally been painted using a polychrome or multiple color technique.
Due to the pervasiveness of Hinduism in Indian culture, Indian art, which primarily consists of religious art, remains a living tradition that has survived without significant interruption over several millennia.
The early inhabitants of India were farmers and herders who practiced religious cults focused on the fertility of nature. When the Aryans arrived in the region around 1500 BC, these indigenous traditions were combined with the Indo-European cults of the Aryans to create Hinduism. Then, in the sixth century BC, the Buddhist religion, grounded in Hindu roots, developed and spread. During this same time, the Jain religion also grew out of Hinduism, establishing the third major world religion to originate in India.
The Chola Dynasty (c. 860-1279 A.D.), to which the DMA Shiva Nataraja dates, dominated southern India for nearly four centuries and expanded as far as Sri Lanka and the Maldive Islands. This period saw the production of exquisite portable bronzes depicting Hindu figures, as well as the flourishing of performance arts. Chola art and architecture were intended to communicate the power, wealth, and piety of the dynasty’s rulers. Shiva in the form of Nataraja became particularly popular during this period as the kings of the Chola dynasty regularly patronized the great Shiva Nataraja temple in Chidambaram.
Hinduism is a complex system of beliefs. It incorporates many religious texts and many local and village gods, along with the principle trinity of Brahma [BRAH-mah], Vishnu [VISH-noo], and Shiva. Hinduism is characterized by the notion that opposing forces are aspects of one eternal truth, the belief in reincarnation, and the practice of good deeds in hopes of being reborn into a higher caste. Through trade and cultural connections, Hinduism became a major influence on many cultures throughout Asia, such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
The conventional triad of Hindu deities includes Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. In principle, these gods are equal in power and influence, representing three aspects (creation, preservation, and destruction) of One Divine Power.
In the Hindu creation story, Brahma was responsible for all of creation. Hindu cosmology records the time of creation in terms of the days and years of the life of Brahma. His four heads symbolize the four Vedas [VAY-duhs], Hindu’s oldest scriptures, and the goose or geese he often rides represent knowledge. These themes add to the perception of his role as counselor and teacher of the gods. However, Brahma has lost popularity in the modern era and is rarely worshiped by Hindus today. Instead, Devi, a figure who embodies all Hindu goddesses, has become the third most popular figure in the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses. Devi is short for Shri Devi, which means “the great goddess.”
Vishnu, the invincible protector and preserver of the universe, serves as a hero figure who reestablishes cosmic order in many Hindu stories. He embodies the characteristics of goodness and mercy. When the balance of the universe is disturbed by evil or destructive forces, Vishnu will prevail over the spiritually ignorant demons and restore dharma or moral order. Vishnu is associated with many different incarnations or avatars, whose form he assumes while restoring universal order in these stories.
Chola bronzes, used to decorate south Indian temples, were produced using the direct lost-wax method, which creates a single unique image as opposed to one that is cast from a mold of an existing image. These bronzes are solid cast, unlike their hollow cast counterparts in north India.
Indian sculptors mold images out of wax that is comprised of a mixture of beeswax and tree resin. Once the wax is fully molded into the key pieces of the final sculpture, it is placed in cold water to harden. The pieces of wax are joined after being reheated and connected with tubular struts. While the wax is malleable and sticky, sculptors form every detail because every mark on the mold will register on the finished metal cast sculpture.
The wax image is then covered with an outer mold of layered clay, and the entire piece is held together with metal wire suitable to the heat of fire. The clay-encased mold is baked, and the wax is then melted from the outer mold and molten metal is poured into it. After cooling for several days, the clay mold is broken open to reveal the metal sculpture within. The bronze is polished and smoothed and any excess clay or bronze chipped away to create the finished product.
1. What are some adjectives to describe this figure?
2. This sculpture represents the Hindu god Shiva as the Lord of the Dance. Consider the significance of Shiva’s dance. What differences can you think of between gods dancing and humans dancing?
3. How is dance significant in your culture? Where have you seen or experienced dance?
4. How can you tell a story through dance or choreography?
5. Shiva is the god of destruction and creation. What might be the purpose of these dual powers?
6. We know that this sculpture represents the Hindu god Shiva. How are gods and goddesses or other divine beings represented in other works of art you have seen?
7. We know that this sculpture would have been one of many pieces used to decorate a Hindu temple. How are the sacred or gathering spaces of other religions decorated? What is the potential purpose of these decorations?
1. The tenth-century visionary, Sandarar, said about Shiva:
He dances, a whirl
The great lord
Bearing fire, crowned
With the crescent and with Ganga
As his golden anklets chime
And his serpents dance, too.
What do you read in this hymn that you see in Shiva Nataraja. Afterwards, create your own poem about another Hindu work of art in the DMA collection.
2. In a short essay, compare and contrast Shiva Nataraja with another image of Shiva in a different form (i.e. Lover/husband of Parvati, ascetic yogi, etc.) Be sure to discuss the symbolism and significance of both images.
3. This sculpture, like many Hindu bronzes, would have appeared in processions during festivals honoring the gods. Research the festival of Shiva as well as another tradition that uses art during public ceremony. Create a visual presentation explaining the ceremony and significance of the objects included.
4. Shiva as Nataraja represents creation, maintenance, and destruction. What modern symbols could be combined to illustrate your view or another culture’s view about how the universe was created, how it is maintained, and how itmay end. Continue this exploration through collaboration with your class by drawing or painting a wall mural depicting the symbols. Discuss and compare the creation myths of cultures studied.
|Learn about the role of Hinduism in Indian culture.|
|Listen to curator Anne Bromberg discuss Hinduism.|
|Listen to curator Anne Bromberg discuss attributes of Shiva.|
|Listen to guest lecturer Darielle Mason discuss Hindu temple structure and worship.|
|Curator Anne Bromberg discusses this sculpture of Shiva Nataraja.|
Ambrose, Kay, rev. by Ram Gopal. Classical Dances and Costumes of India. London : A&C Black, 1983. GV1693.A7 1983B
Dehejia, Vidya. Chola: Sacred Bronzes of Southern India. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2006. NB1007.S67C46 2006
Dehejia, Vidya. The Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola Bronzes from South India. New York: American Federation of Arts; Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 2002. NB1007.S67 D44 2002, pages 98-99.
Gaston, Anne-Marie. SÌï¿½iva in Dance, Myth and Iconography. Delhi; New York : Oxford University Press, 1982. GV1693/G38 1982
Kaimal, Padma. “Shiva Nataraja: Shifting Meanings of an Icon.” The Art Bulletin. Vol. 81. No. 3. (Sept, 1999), p. 390-419.
Khanna, Sucharita. Dancing Divinities in Indian Art, 8th – 12th Century A.D.. Delhi: Sharada Publishing House, 1999. NB1952.D35K48 1999.
Kramrisch, Stella. The Presence of SÌï¿½iva. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1981. NB1007.S67K71992
Sivaramamurti, C. South Indian Bronzes. New Dehli, 1963.
Read a summary of Hinduism and Parvati from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Read a summary of Hinduism and Shiva Nataraja from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Learn the basic concepts and gods in the Hindu religion.
Learn about bronze sculptures of Shiva through the exhibition web site for The Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola Bronzes from South India
This web site provides a summary and timeline of South Asian Culture through art.
Access tips for recognizing Hindu and Buddhist gods.
Explore five facts helpful to teaching about Indian Art.
Secondary level lesson plans focused on reflection and comparison of world belief systems.
Explore religion and philosophy in the contemporary world through photos, articles, and video.
Access a pdf document full of teaching ideas for understanding South Asian Hindu and Buddhist art.
This website provides a summary and timeline of South Asian Culture through art.
Access rich educational materials focused on the Art of South and Southeast Asia
Concise and comparative presentations of world religions with connections to works of art.
This web site provides a rich, multimedia exploration of India through photos, commentary, and educational resources.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.
“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”