Vinatu nrityashastrena citrasutram sudurvidam

Without the knowledge of dance the knowledge
of sculptural art cannot be known

This is a well known line from the Vishnudharmottara Purana, a Sanskrit text which describes techniques of painting and sculpture. So why would a book on sculpture have a line which gives so much merit to dance. This is because Indian dance and sculpture have shared a common vocabulary through out history. The idea is best illustrated through examples and what better example than the famous icon of Nataraja.

Nataraja – translated either as the ‘dancing king’ or the ‘king of dancers’, is the deity Shiva represented as a dancing icon. This image was a contribution of philosophers and sculptors in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Let me begin with the myth of the Nataraja image. Once upon a time in the Daruka forest a group of very enlightened sages lived with their wives. Over a period of time they became very arrogant and were filled with pride about their powers. They became so arrogant that they considered themselves more powerful than the gods and everyone else in the Universe.

In order to curb their pride, Shiva decided to play a small trick on them along with his friend, god Vishnu. Disguised as an enchanting couple, they both entered the forest. Shiva was in the guise of a young man, and Vishnu in the guise of a beautiful women. The sages were captivated by the beauty of Vishnu and their wives were attracted to the handsome young man. Soon the sages realised that they were being fooled, and this enraged them. They decided to destroy the young upstart not realising that it was lord Shiva. They built a sacrificial fire and chanting hymns they invoked various beings to destroy Shiva. They brought forth a tiger. Shiva smilingly killed the tiger and wore the skin as a trophy. In the very end they sent forth a fierce demon. Shiva crushed the demon under his foot and began dancing his joyous dance of victory – ananda tandava. Thus ending the pride and ignorance of the sages. There are many such myths of the dancing lord.

In many texts on dance Shiva is considered as the one who taught the art of dance to mankind. To this day the figure of Nataraja is held in high regard by all classical Indian dancers. This image has been used countless times all over the world to represent Indian culture. What is this image? Does it have any meaning besides being a beautiful depiction of movement? Let us look at the philosophical significance of this image.


The left leg is lifted across the body and this foot is said to represent ‘refuge for the devotee’. Very often in songs this foot is described, for e.g. the famous Tamil song by Papanasam Sivan

idadu padam tuki adum
Natarajan adi panivaye

which means, the One who dances lifting his left leg
(to that) Nataraja's feet I salute

The right leg is planted firmly on a small demon who is called apasmara purusha. Apasmara purusha is the personification of ignorance. So the dance of Shiva is the dance that stamps on and destroys ignorance.

The four hands are in different positions. The front right hand is in the blessing gesture or one which bestows boons. The left hand is crossed across the chest and it points to the uplifted left leg. This again indicates that a true devotee attains bliss at the feet of dancing Shiva. The two upper hands which frame the figure are shown carrying fire and a drum. The fire represents the power of destruction and the drum represents the birth of sound which represents the sound of creation. So in his dance Nataraja balances the creative and the destructive powers of the Universe. If one can trace the dynamic position of the hands the geometry of the figure becomes apparent. These points are said to represent a sacred mystical diagram.
The home of the dancing lord is the Nataraja temple at Chidambaram (Tamil Nadu state of Southern India). Here Nataraja is installed in the sanctum and in recent years an annual dance festival called ‘Natyanjali’ is held at Chidambaram. It is interesting that the priests often ask the worshippers to peer at the space behind the idol, through a perforated window and ask the worshippers to see what they call’ Chidambara rahasya’ or the ‘secret of Chidambara’. This I feel is partly an exercise designed to make the worshipper see beyond the obvious i.e. see beyond the mere worship of an idol. It attempts to make the worshipper see the Nataraja image as a symbol of something rather than an end in itself. The Nataraja image thus fully embodies everything that is common to Indian dance and sculpture: myth, symbolism, movement and mysticism.

Temples have been the repositories of art in India throughout history. Even to a casual tourist it is obvious that many sculptures adorn the temples. Many of them are in positions that are very common to classical Indian dance and even folk dances. Temples are adorned with sculptures and there are many different types of sculptures. Here’s a picture of dance sculpture at Belur. The sculpture is often described as darpana sundari- the beauty who looks at the mirror. This is represented in dance as seen in this picture.

For e.g. this high relief from Halebidu shows the deity Ganesha dancing and another shows a male dancing with a group of musicians etc.

Uniquely in Chidambaram , in the Sarangapani temple in Kumbakonam and in the Shiva temple at Tanjore karanas are sculpted in relief . For further reference to karanas refer to a complete section on the front page of this website. There are many paintings also devoted to dancing themes.
Here I must point out that not only temples but even Jaina chaityas and buddhist stupas and monuments have dance sculptures.
For example this pair of dancers with sticks is from a Jaina matha in Karnataka.