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Exhibition on Shiva Nataraja at the Museum Rietberg, Zurich

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The essence of Shiva


<table bgcolor="#ffeedd" border="0"><tbody><tr><td> An exhibition on Shiva Nataraja at the Museum Rietberg, Zurich, excellently curated, brings together a small but exquisite collection of works to reaffirm the Cosmic Dancer and his context from his world and beyond. The exhibition is on till March 1, 2009. </td></tr></tbody></table>

<hr color="#ddeeff" noshade="noshade"> With the use of some rare colonial prints of French origin and archival photographs, Beltz’s piece puts the exhibition into perspective for the European audience it is largely intended for. <hr color="#ddeeff" noshade="noshade">



Talking of Shiva: Exhibits from the show at Museum Rietberg: Kalyanasundaramurti. </center>


Shiva Nataraja: The Cosmic Dancer — the title of the recently opened show at the Museum Rietberg puts one on the defensive: Oh! no, here they go again, another show on the universal icon, beloved of Ananda Coomaraswamy and the Department of Tourism. Yet, the show is well worth a visit because of how it is curated. This credit goes to the team of curators and Johannes Beltz of the Museum Rietberg who have brought together some rare and wonderful pieces on display.

Beltz has also written the introductory essay outlining the trajectory of interest in Indian culture by collectors and donors such as Alice Bonner and Eduard Van Leyden who were a large influence on early Swiss collections of Indian and South Asian Art. He also foregrounds these against the context of dance explorations of Uday Shankar and Mata Hari and others who were exploring the motif of Shiva Nataraja. With the use of some rare colonial prints of French origin and archival photographs, Beltz’s piece puts the exhibition into perspective for the European audience it is largely intended for.

Valuable insights



Chola period Goddess Durga. </center>

The other curator, Saskia Kersenboom, South Indian anthropologist and dance expert and authority on devadasis of South India (Her work Nithyasumangali should be prescribed reading for any student preparing for a Bharatanatyam arangetram so they understand where the post-nationalist construct of this name derives its history, legacy and continuum from). Kersenboom has written a definitive catalogue that templates the entire exhibition into three prisms of time-space continuity through her exceedingly well researched and cross referenced essay in three parts: Natya, Ayanam and Tandava.

This writer had the privilege of being taken around by Dr.Kersenboom before the exhibition opened to the public later that evening and following her prescribed route and understanding the context in which the display was made completely elevated the experience. One enters the gallery and is greeted by a dwarapala. This one though has tremendous presence and is placed as a reminder of the two gate keepers Destiny and Death before one enters the sanctum. This particular piece from the Reitberg’s collection has superb jewellery and hair flowing almost as in a Nataraja idol.


The origin of the Nataraja story is seen through the lens of two sources, that of the Natyasastra and the South Indian epic Cilappatikaram. Through these sources Kersenboom takes us through details and stories to come to the essence of the presence of Shiva, represented in the centre of the exhibition as a Lingodhbhava and then allowing the viewer to make a pradakshina around the gallery so as to understand the rituals performed within the temple space. Four varied nandis at four cardinal points lead to this central Lingodhbhava backed in reverse by Shiva Dakshinamurti, the Teacher. These in turn are surrounded in matrix of six Natarajas from the Pallava and Chola periods. Through the viewing we also see a detailed diagram of Nataraja with all his attributes clearly signified so that for the viewer who comes fresh out of context can read the coded idol. The essence of The Cosmic Dancer, ruling by the dynamics of his movement and reign of continuous transformation of day and night, externalisation (shrishti) and re-absorption (pralaya) are more clearly understood within the context of the game of dice that Shiva and Parvati play in the cosmic time of the universe.


Here we find that Shiva is outwitted many a times by Parvati and it is she who wins. Within this metaphor of Ayanam, the course of time, we see that if Parvati is the victor then all creation grows and expands but with Shiva’s victory it contracts inwardly into the source. However, Parvati is always and ultimately the winner presupposing that when she does so, life conquers and triumphs over death. Here we see the god and goddess together and separated. In the Ardhanarishwara Murti exhibited in the exhibition, again from the Rietberg’s vaults, one is delighted by the scale and finesse with which the sculptor has imbued this piece. A surprise is to find the Nandi which turns his face in a three quarter position and almost nuzzles Shiva, reaffirming for the viewer the real archetypes from which these gods were brought into early Indic imagination. Beautiful bronzes of Somaskanda, Uma Sahita Shiva and a rare but exquisite Meenakshi Kalayanam (Kalyanasundaramurti) from the Nayak period with Vishnu giving away Parvati and pouring sacred water over their palms through a perfect Kalasam are a delight to behold. Here too, a rare Nandi vahana from the Berlin Museum is seen in pigment colorations but its most striking features are the way its sculptural plasticity is portrayed, tongue licking and proud as Nandi would have been carrying the Utsavamurtis (processional images).

The Dakshinayanam or the Southern Path takes us to the transition of the sun to darker spaces. Here is a time for contemplation and planting new fields for the next season. Village life and rituals are in a liminal metaphorical stage and caution is exercised. Fierce goddesses, demons, the propitiation of the goddess at Navaratri and the time of pilgrimage represented through the Nayanmars, the sixty three bhakti saints of the Saiva Siddhantha cult of South India who wandered and sang in praise of their beloved Shiva are shown here. Here there is a bust of Kali which has serpents encircling her breasts and a serpent as a necklace and their sinuous curves give this fierce icon an unusually rare sensuousness. Various stories from the hagiographies of the saints and their poems allow the viewer an access into their lives which are known to the followers of Southern Saivism.

When the Arudra star appears Shiva dances his Ananda Tandava, “Dance of Bliss”. This star is thought to be ‘moist’, ‘soft’ and ‘tender’ and marks the turning point in the accumulation of danger. His dance in an arch of fire purifies and transforms all darkness along the Southern course into gold. The Natyashastra makes mention of this vigorous dance ‘at the end of pralaya’ which is bestowing ‘all happiness’. Here were turn to the six Natarajas placed in a peripheral square to the final stage of Tandava.




Nandi. </center>

Ananda Tandava is now the Dance of Bliss and it allows for the pilgrim and viewer to partake of Shiva’s grace or arul thus transcending human experience. In the background contextual music recorded at temples sung by the ritualist (Otuvars) and also a movie showing the manner in which these processional deities are taken around in festivals makes the viewer understand the why, where and what-fors.

From here, the viewer, sated by the imagery of the icons, sculpture, woodcuts, ritual artefacts of the exhibition and the imagined world of their real context with life lived to the beat of nature, festivals and the grand celebrations of divine epiphanies memorised in the cultural genome of the people of the South leaves the exhibition drenched with a large amount of exhilaration.

The pieces are exhibited in the round and make for easy viewing. There are beautiful colour tones of red madder used on pillars to create the three dimensional sensation of temple stripes with the white walls. The only small aberrations are the display of the 63 Nayanmars from the newly cast British Museum collection against a backdrop of mint green walls and each one’s name only in Tamil. There are small details like that of a Vaishnavite temple cart in the exhibition on Shiva and in the chart on Shiva Nataraja his flowing dhoti/veshti /vastram is called a sarong!! Besides these small details the show is an exercise of delicate and sensitive curating that has brought together a small but exquisite collection of works to reaffirm the Cosmic Dancer and his context from his world and beyond. It is in this viewing that the curators allow the viewer to take the leap beyond what is, what was and what can be. The potentiality of our larger spiritual lives is exemplarily displayed and discussed through this show; the challenge for the viewer is to find it echoed in the viewing.


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