October 4, 2009

TSS: Dance in Indian Art by Tasha of Heidenkind's Hideaway

I am out of the country at my sister's wedding in India with a quick stop in London on the way back! While I am gone some lovely bloggers have stopped by with guest posts! Woohoo!

Today I would like to welcome Tasha of Heidenkind's Hideaway! I asked Tasha if she could write about art since she loves art and works in an art museum (how cool is that?) and she did me one better. In honor of my trip to India she is sharing with us about Indian art and some books for further exploration! Thanks, Tasha!

Dance in Indian Art

While in Judeo-Christian tradition, the world begins with a word, in Hindu tradition it begins with a step--a dance step.

The image of Shiva Nataraja is one of the most iconic images of Indian art and culture. It depicts Shiva dancing the world into creation and destruction. In one of his right hands, he holds a drum that beats out the sound of creation. In one of his left hands, he holds a flame that symbolizes destruction. As for the other two hands, the right is lifted in an Abhaya mudra, a gesture that means "Fear not"; and the left points at his lifted left foot.

As Shiva dances upon ignorance (the dwarf beneath his right foot is the demon whose name means ignorance--but it is not quite the ignorance of not knowing things; it is the ignorance of humans thinking they can understand the universe), his hair comes undone and knocks the planets and stars out of alignment, catching even deities in the long tresses. This is a dance not only of creation and destruction, but of bliss. And through dancing, humans can achieve the same bliss, if only momentarily, and become one with the gods.

Although dance was important in most ancient cultures, only in India is there an unbroken culture of dance going back to the earliest civilizations. Statues of Shiva Nataraja started being produced in the tenth century during the Chola dynasty; the Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro dates to 2500 b.c. (give or take a few centuries). We don't know if the people that lived in the Indus River Valley and created the Dancing Girl danced all the time or only at special occasions; we do know they danced in temples, during religious ceremonies, and during important events such as right before a battle or around the body of a fallen warrior. How do we know? Because they told us in their art, like the Dancing Girl or rock paintings like the dancer at Bhim-Betka.

There's no doubt dancing had serious religious and spiritual implications to Indus civilizations; but how dancing survived changes in religions, the restrictions of Muslim society where only concubines were allowed to dance, and even being outlawed by the British is still a mystery. And in case you were wondering, yes, Bollywood dances come directly from traditional India dance. In early film they were classical folkdances; now, they're a combination of that, Western club dance, and even classical ballet.

Hindi dancing reveals love, longing, and infatuation, but it is not swept away by them; it reflects grief, anger, and violence, but it is not of them. Like Nataraja, a dancer floats above the world, suspended between the extremes of life, in a state of bliss. That idea is so central to Indian culture and art that the image of the dancer has become emblematic to Hindu religion, visual arts, and popular culture.

Further Reading: Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization by Heinrich Zimmer and Joseph Campbell
Indian Art by Vidya Dehejia
Bells of Change: Kathak Dance, Women, and Modernity in India by Pallabi Chakravorty
Beyond Bollywood: The Cultural Politics of South Asian Diasporic Film by Jigna Desai
Shiva's Fire by Suzanne Fisher Staples (YA fiction book)
Gods of Love and Ecstasy: The Traditions of Shiva and Dionysus by Alain Danelou

While I love learning about all cultures, Indian culture is one of my favorites. Perhaps it is because my brother-in-law is Indian. (I have a brother-in-law now!) But I do know that I love learning about India. I love the recommendations for further reading, too! As if I needed more books to put on my TBR list, lol. Thanks for sharing this with us, Tasha!

Come back tomorrow for another fab guest post! See you soon!


  1. This was seriously fascinating. I love your art/culture/history posts, Tasha!

  2. Thank you for asking me to guest blog for you while you were at your sister's wedding, Rebecca! I hope you're having a blast and taking lots of pictures. :)

    Nymeth~Thank you. <33

  3. I love art history, and enjoyed learning something new today. I also have a new blog to add to my reader :-).

    It's interesting to read how this type of dance ties into Indian culture.

  4. Oh what a wonderful post! My husband's family is originally from India, and while they are not Hindu, it's still nice to know more about the culture and history of India. Thanks for sharing that with us :)


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