Fire and water

Shiva the god dances in an arch of flames as rivers stream from his hair. What is he telling us? His message is personal, says John Reeve

One of the most familiar images from Indian art is the Hindu god Shiva as "Lord of the Dance". It is an extraordinarily delicate and intense piece of sculpture, poised and calm, expressive of several key ideas in Hinduism. It uses the human form in movement as a focus for devotion largely by people who couldn't read texts and so experienced and understood faith through stories and images. It's a three-dimensional image so it becomes even more lifelike when it's carried out of the temple. (There are holes in the base through which poles were inserted.) An ancient Hindu text asks: Without a form, how can God be meditated upon?

Where will the mind fix itself?

When there is nothing for the mind to attach itself to, it will slip away from meditation or will glide into a state of slumber.

What is the viewer meant to see and feel when contemplating this image? If we start with the hands, the answer is protection and reassurance: that is the meaning of the gesture that Shiva makes with his right hand. His left hand is imitating an elephant's trunk and directs us to his protruding foot - we should be humble and venerate it as part of our devotion to him. Hindu gods often have many arms as a way of expressing power by holding symbols such as weapons or significant objects. In his other hands Shiva holds symbols of his role as both creator (the little drum) and destroyer (a flame). Each cycle of time begins with Shiva tapping the drum; at the end of each cycle, when the world is full of sin and corruption, it can be purged only through fire, and then a new cycle begins. This cycle of time is represented by an arch of flame.

Shiva reconciles opposites and is here maintaining a precarious balance of life over death, good over evil, truth over ignorance. He is standing on the figure of a dwarf, who represents the ignorance of those who don't follow the Hindu scriptures or devote themselves to Shiva.

Shiva is not a role model for conventional family values. It's Vishnu, the other major male god, who offers a different kind of reassurance - security, certainty, community. Shiva, on the other hand, is often depicted alone and distant on the mountain top looking down on the world in meditation, a source of elemental energy and creation. His headdress is like a mountain, and his long matted tresses of hair represent the rivers that flow down from the mountain, in particular the River Ganges. Originally the rivers flowed in heaven but not on earth, until the gods allowed it. To prevent the water of the Ganges crashing to earth and causing disaster, Shiva caught the river in his hair and so the goddess Ganga is shown as a tiny figure in his hair to the left as we look at him.

Shiva has many names - "the Auspicious One","the Great God", "the Great Black One", "'the Beautiful Lord". The roots of his image and cult may go back even to the Indus Valley culture of 2500BC. He commands an often ecstatic and very personal response from his followers, as seen in this poem:

Feet will dance,

eyes will see,

tongue will sing, and not find content.

What else, what else

shall I do?

O lord of the meeting rivers!

This bronze, made by the lost-wax process and then gilded, was made around 1100AD and comes from South India, from the kingdom of the Chola dynasty which, at its greatest extent, stretched from the Ganges to Sri Lanka. Bronzes like this are regarded as one of the high points of Indian art or indeed sculpture anywhere.

Further information

Hindu Art By Richard Blurton (British Museum Press) is a very thorough and well-illustrated introduction. Many of the sculptures illustrated are on show in the Hotung Gallery at the British Museum, for which there are daily introductory tours, and also a gallery guide introducing Indian and South East Asian art. The museum's database COMPASS (www.thebritishmuseum.ac.ukcompass) has the image of Shiva Nataraja on it, and other images of him, including some in stone and bronze.

Indian Art by Vidya Dehejia, (Phaidon) is an excellent overview, including chapters on Chola temples and bronzes as well as modern Indian art.

Books on sculpture generally for teachers and older students include: Sculpture by Philip Rawson (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), which takes a form and method approach, with some interesting material on Indian sculpture and aesthetics.

The Materials of Sculpture by Nicholas Penny (Yale, 1993) is a useful resource for looking at sculpture in many media, including bronzes from many different cultures.

Speaking of Siva, (South Indian poems of devotion;) and Hindu Myths edited by Wendy O'Flaherty. (Penguin Classics).

Books for KS2-3:

Seasons of Splendour by Madhur Jaffrey and illustrated by Michael Foremanby retells key Hindu stories (Puffin, 1987).

The Secrets of Sculpture (Kingfisher Kaleidoscopes, 1994).

Sculpture by Mary-Jane Opie, (Eyewitness Art, Dorling Kindersley, 1994) and the Story of Sculpture by Francesca Romei, (MacDonald Young Books, 1995) both illustrate the "lost-wax" method and a stimulating and varied range of sculpture.

To develop an Indian project around colour, clay, textiles and body decoration, use Arts and Crafts of India by Cooper and Gillow (Thames and Hudson, 1996.) John Reeve is head of education at the British Museum.

British Museum, Great Russell Street, London.

Tel: 020 7323 8511

LESSON IDEAS Key stage 2

Try taking up this pose and see how long you can keep it up! What will the next move be? What kind of music could you make for Shiva's dance? Can you think of other names that could describe Shiva? Write a poem to him, asking for his help, and using the name you have chosen. Shiva rides on a bull, Nandi - you could paint him in the mountains. Shiva is usually shown a bright blue (use COMPASS images for help with this.)

Key stage 3 and above

"Every Hindu hopes to escape some day from the necessity of using images."

How do other religions use human images? Which religions don't? Are gods normally seen in movement like this? How are ideas expressed in the art of other religions?

Look for other images of movement in sculpture (see the Roman marble Discus Thrower on COMPASS for example) and also of dance, particularly Degas, whose bronze of a young dancer can be seen in the Sainsbury Centre, Norwich (www.uea.ac.ukscva). Why do you think a work like this is regarded by Indians and non-Indians alike as a high point in world art? Think about the technology involved - what are the likely stresses in carrying this piece about?

What media other than sculpture might you use today to depict these aspects of Shiva's character described above?

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