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Interpreting the Shiva Nataraja

2021-04-06 来源: 51Due教员组 类别: Essay范文




Interpreting the Shiva Nataraja

Dance is one of humankind's most ancient and expressive forms of art and has been used for almost every cultural purpose. In Indian culture, the Hindu god Shiva represents many different activities and processes, including dancing. Among his various dancing forms, Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, is the most common. The image of the Shiva Nataraja brings a dynamic feeling through a light, graceful, static picture, symbolizing the ancient Indian philosophy, which forms an outstanding example of the combination of ancient Indian religions and artistic traditions. This piece of art is also considered to be one of the most mysterious philosophical artworks in Indian culture, and its interpretation is hotly contested and much debated.

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, a pioneering philosopher and historian of Indian art, conducted a meaningful and inspiring study on the dance of Shiva in as early as 1957. His article The Dance of Shiva was selected and published within a collection of Indian essays by New York publisher The Noonday Press. In this paper, he conducted a meaningful and inspiring study on the dance of Shiva. He summarized the three essential significance of Shiva’s dance. First, she believed that the Arch represented Shiva’s Rhythmic Play as the root and source of all movement with in the universe, or the Cosmos. Second, the purpose of Shiva’s dance was to releasee the souls from the Snare of Illusion. Third, the center of the universe, Chidambaram — the place of dance — was within the heart (Coomaraswamy 1957, 77).

Coomaraswamy provided massive textual evidence to support his argument by quoting a lot of others’ poems, prayers, or other forms of writings. He started by insisting that the meaning behind different forms of the Shiva dance was more or less the same and represented the “primal rhythmic energy (Coomaraswamy 1957, 66).” It attracted attention for sure, however, many of his claims were not followed by strong evidence.

The subject of his paper included three pieces of the Shiva dance: the evening dance in the Himalayas, the Tandava, and the Nadanta dance. He quoted from the Shiva Pradosha Stotra, the Katha Sarit Sagara, and the Koyil Puranam. Obviously, he tried to find descriptive evidence from Indian religious records. It is understandable that in the 1950s, there were very few academic studies on Indian art, religion, and culture, and the difficulties involved in conducting such studies were also great. Perhaps religious legends and stories were the only clues they could count on at that time. Nevertheless, Coomaraswamy tried to translate some theories from Hindu scholars. For example, he used quotes Unmai Vilakkam to explain the identification of the dance of Shiva, which was from Nandikeshvara’s work (Coomaraswamy 1957, 76).

As for the core opinion, Coomaraswamy regarded the images of the dance of Shiva as “visual symbols of the theory of the day and night of Brahma (Coomaraswamy 1957, 78).” His article had given the dance of Shiva figurative menacing and transformed its artistic concept into a linguistic form and semiotic analysis. He defined that the dance of Shiva symbolized the glory of Shiva and the eternal movement of the universes, and the movement was to make the universe immortal. At the end of an era, Shive accomplished the destruction of the world by dancing and merging it into the spirit of the world.

Coomaraswamy used a clear logical framework to analyze the dance of Shiva. He studied three subjects separately and looked for reasonable evidence to support his argument. At the same time, his paper contained distinct romanticism under his logic as he endeavored to describe the elegance and power of the combination of religion and art. It is true that his views were very passionate and contagious. However, after several decades of expanding the wideness and depth of Indian art study, scholars have developed different attitudes toward the dance of Shiva.

Padma Kaimal, who has a PhD in Indian art history from University of California, Berkeley, applies contemporary theory and revisionist history to ancient Indian art, on the other hand, disagrees with Coomaraswamy’s argument. She published a paper called Shiva Nataraja: Shifting Meanings of an Icon in 1999 on the Art Bulletin, a scholarly journal of art. In her paper, she also studied on the sculptures of Shiva Nataraja and conducted different conclusions. The first couple paragraphs of her paper were actually criticizing Coomaraswamy’s.

Kaimal had three main arguments. First, nobody today would know what the original meaning of the sculptures were, there was not enough supportive evidence. Second, the sculptures meant more than just one thing and their meaning changed over time. Third, Coomaraswamy’s textual evidence was unconvincing — he used texts written centuries after the sculptures were created to justify a continuous historical interpretation (Kaimal 1999, 391).

To support her argument, she performed a more thorough textual analysis of the sculpture and works surrounding the dancing Shiva. In addition, she also went through the history of the sculptures and the political and religious context of that history to show that the sculptures' history and meaning was much more complicated. Based on her thorough research and analysis, Kaimal was almost certainly educated steeped in postmodern art history criticism. She had exacting requirements for textual analysis and a more holistic view of what affects art and its interpretation.

Kaimal used historical with visual evidence to support her argument. She pointed out that Coomraswamy used Tamil texts from the 13th and 17th centuries to propose a strict, universal, constant one-to-one symbolism for each aspect of the Shiva Nataraja, which did not seem like accurate or strong textual evidence to analyze a piece of artwork centries ago. She also claimed that Coomaraswamy outsourced the research to a Tamil colleague, T.A. Rao  and that implied his research might lack of depth (Kaimal 1999, 394). Many earlier sculptures and Tamil literature describing Shiva’s dance existed from before the 10th century, but did not mention many details of the modern sculpture, such as the circle of the flame, the crosses leg, etc; she also described Shiva with a different set of equipment or accessories, such as a trumpet, a fawn, a skull bowl, etc. (Kaimal 1999, 394). When Shiva Nataraja did emerge, historically, in about the early 10th century, they were uncommon and differ in detail from each other and the modern form of the Nataraja, suggesting that this was not a well-known god in the region.

Other authors were referenced as well. Such as Kamil Zvelebil’s synthetic essay on Shiva’s dance, Hermann Kulke and David Shulman’s approached to myth and history, Douglas Barrett’s chronology of early Nataraja sculptures, and David Smith’s and Paul Younger’s interpretations of Chidambaram (Kaimal 1999, 392). A lot of tenth century Nataraja images seemed much darker, destructive, and associated with death than Coomaraswarmy’s interpretation (Kaimal 1999, 401). David Smith argued that Nataraja actually might have evolved from a tamasic aspect of Shiva, and that the dwarf under his foot was an assistant, not a defeated enemy (Kaimal 1999, 404). The statues may also had represented Chola power, and served as a legitimizing deity for the kings of Chola, with a strong political meaning.

As a conclusion, Kaimal stated that there were a range of readings, and they had probably changed over time. We may never know which of them was correct, or how correct it was, but a diverse, changing set of views of Nataraja over time seemed likely.

The diversification of the contents and ways of doing things leads to the different shapes and forms of artworks. In this situation, we are always debating on the significance behind the works of art. I believe that art is about people’s deep feelings about the world and it will travel across time and space. Therefore, ancient artworks that incorporating with religion or with other activities could elect the characteristics of human behavior in a certain period of time. Talking about the Shiva Nataraja, comparing these two papers, Kaimal’s interpretation seems better because her argument is much stronger and more likely to be true. Art and religion are not that simple and many factors affect them and cause them to be reinterpreted over time. Kaimal's article shows the postmodernist approach; recognizing the complexity of artworks and pointing out they do not have to contain any fixed meaning. Moreover, perhaps influenced by the abundance of academic resources of different ages, Kaimal is consulted and provides more historical evidence. An analysis of an ancient artwork can often show different meanings from different perspectives, which is more convincing on this point. Of course, we should not deny Coomaraswamy's pioneering contribution to Indian culture. His research may not be comprehensive, but certainly provided a very good analytical perspective and research object for later scholars. By comparing the two articles on the interpretation of the Shiva Nataraja, we can see the progress of the development of art commentary analysis and criticism, as well as the changes in perspectives of different ages.




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