Dance in South Indian Sculpture and Painting

Professor Leela Ganapathy
Head of Department of History of Arts
Government College of Arts & Crafts, Madras

Art is a collaboration between God and man, raising him to the exclusive band of creators and taking him deeply within and around his handiwork. It is a unique result of a unique temperament with its beauty derived from notable disconcern of his environment. When early man stencilled an impression = the dark of wall of the cave, he was deliberately making his own mark on the world around him bringing about the bright ideas of chronicling, vision and creation. This story of art has been largely the story of man’s continuing search of meaningful marks for shape, movement and image that can most eloquently express his experience of the inner and outer world, resulting in enlargement and perpetuation. Such a man, bestowed with reason, had always been a great thinker when absorbed in his surroundings, his fill into long reveries and these were his finest hours. So long as the reveries lasted, ne was pondering, imagining and visualising the shape of things to come about the domestic cravings and comforts in life.

It is not without reason to assume that man’s vanity also contributed to his creation, Vanity always derived pleasure and satisfaction from appreciation and praise. It is his ego that had stood its ground in every creator to do sling out of the ordinary. Creation motivated by different desires resulted knowingly or unknowingly in chronicling his present for the future and preserving them for posterity.

Call it by whatever name, these instincts found their vent in different forms and in fact they were the foundation of the birth of fine arts. Born thus, the arts improved from stage to stage and from age to age in different forms and styles, from the initial crude lines to the superfine form of tints today. It is the theory of naturalists and anthropologists that mankind evolved simultaneously and contemporaneously in different parts of the world according to the climatic conditions. As the various aborigines, progressed in the realisation of their reveries and attained various stages of development, they left the land marks of their life and their hobbies, particularly the remnants of their fine arts for the benefit of generations to come.

In ancient India, fine arts, the art of dance, painting and sculpture were developed and inspired by religion. All arts like all stages of life are embodied in religion. Indian art is life suffixed by religion and philosophy. Art was dedicated to producing objects of worship in a life ordered by faith. Indian art of all periods has been close to life both divine and traditional. The theory of Indian Dance cannot be isolated from the arts of literature, sculpture, painting and music. Human nature with its joy and sorrow is depicted by means of representation through natya.

Dance is the rhythmic physical movement prompted by feelings and emotions, from the cavemen through the growth of civilization. Being the supreme art, its scope as explained by Bharata embraces all themes of life.

Indian dance takes human figure as its basic instrument of expression and its synthesis the technique of other arts becoming the most beautiful and significant approach of the Hindu mind.

Dance has a message for its audience that it exhorts to live the ideal life in the path of righteousness, prosperity and fame. It is said that with this purpose in view natya was created as the Panchama Veda by Brahma. According to the Hindu concept, this legend is further amplified by the further the further classification of tandava and lasya by Siva and Parvathi, tandava being the violent masculine form and lasya the soft feminine form.

Natya, basically classified into two forms, the nritya based on talc beat which is an eloquent expression of pure rhythmic movements with 108 karanas, while nritya with abhinaya as its principle element is full of suggestion and expressions rasa and bhava. The relationship of the different modes of abhinaya angika, vachika, aharya and satvika brings the relationship between movement and rasa.

 The relationship of different modes bodily, vocal ornamental and of mental state where the gestures of the limbs clearly determine the exposition of thought conveyed and brings the relationship between the movement and rasa achieving the goal of dance.

A work of art is a statement made by sentiment (rasa). The origin of the idea, rasa is from the idea of bhava which is the concrete situation and condition for a period of time of some occurrence. The goal of natya is only to create rasa. Rasa is the enjoyment of an aesthetic bliss derived through witnessing or reading through a production. The process through which this is achieved is the substructure of the varied rules analytically laid down in Natyasastra.

 In ancient India, the significance of dance is established by its occurrence in almost all major scenes of festivity. The languages of this great art is so highly developed and subtle that minute shades of .meaning can be expressed by gestures, pose and movement of limbs, disposition of hands, the facial expressions and the wealth of details suggested by the eyebrows and glances that move like ripples on the placid countenance. It may be a flower blooming or sun rising or the waves of the ocean, the movement of fish, etc. It brings together in movement all the essential charm in the panchabutha – earth, fire, water, air sky. It is a depiction of nature in its true form.

It is clear that the sculptor of the ancient times had a thorough knowledge of Indian classical dance forms and it would be almost impossible to find defects in the dance poses from the technical point of view. The sculptors and painters had a. good knowledge of Natya sastra, Sangitaratnakara, Silparatnakara and other texts, and they based their creations on these traditional texts.

Vishnudarmothara says that King Vajra is asked to master the laws of dancing before attempting to learn the arts of painting and iconography. Once the technique of movement in the living human form is mastered it can be arrested in the plastic medium of stone and colour.

As in natya, so also in chitra (painting), it is the imitation of, the universe that is the representation of man and other human beings in their state of emotion, as in natya, so in painting, those eyes, and those bhavas that abhinaya­-anga and upanga present a supreme picture – the parama chitra.

 The figures of Indian sculpture and painting are the Gods of Indian literature and dancing they are the cosmic beings, embodiments of an abstract idea of an innermost physical significance, and the human form is the vehicle of communication of this soul state. Every pose and gesture in Indian dance is highly symbolic and each figure has particular evocative qualities and they actually form the mode of communication as languages or speech.

From the earliest times to the 16th century, the Indian sculptor seems to be fascinated by the dynamic energy of the Indian dance. The inter-relationship between the dance and sculpture is reiterated by the Silpa ratnakara. The various sthanas and karanas which are essential in natya are equally important in sculpture where in the beauty of the pose is as important as the beauty of the form and abhinaya.

 The overwhelming sculpturesque quality of Indian dance, is visible through the manner in which dances seem to attain the perfect pose, the movement of perfect balances after a series of movement of time. The ancient Indian sculptors in turn tried to capture this cosmic movement through the perfection of rhythm and line. It also attempts to arrest the rapturous intensity and abandon of natya.

The dance was an irresistible source of inspiration to the sculptors. The sculptures thus created had also been in turn a silent guide to generations of dancers. This is how these arts derived mutual help and influence in the process of refinement.

All dancing sculptures are not aesthetically alike, because in respect they depend on the capacity of the sculptor to express himself in the chosen medium. As mentioned before acknowledge of Natya sastra came to be infused into the study of Silpa sastra. Hastas of dance came to be known as mudras in sculpture. The Dhyana sloka in the case of dance sculptures must have been the definition of the karanas and sthanas etc. as given in the Natya sastra. This is the only reason for dance sculpture being an authentic codification in stone, of what was practiced or written during the various periods of history.

Dance has influenced sculpture deeply. The fundamental principle in both these arts is to fill up space on the basis of symmetry and proportion. Both these arts are dependent on the law of proportion. The foremost necessity is beauty. According to Sangitaratnakara, the dance of a beautiful dancer is successful and success depends on nothing but beauty for which we have a parallel in the concept of sculpture.

These dance sculptures are not a mere ornamentation for architecture but they are dancing deities throbbing with life capable of revealing several truths. Of course, it is true that the characteristics of these images are determined by the relation that subsists between the adorer and the adored.

The artist who conceived and fashioned the form of Nataraja has undoubtedly created the greatest masterpiece in Indian art. “A great motif in religion or art or any great symbol becomes all things to all men, age after age, it yields to men such treasure as .they find in their own hearts” (A.K. Coomarasamy from The Dance of Shiva). Nataraja reached the perfection of aesthetic appreciation in India. The grandeur of the conception of Siva as a cosmic dancer is a synthesis of science, religion and art with Nataraja, the Lord of dance as its greatest exponent. The significance of his dance is three fold:-

  • It is the source of all movements within the cosmos;
  • The purpose is to release from the snares of illusion, the countless souls of man;
  • The place of dance, Chidambaram -the centre of universe is in the

The dance represents the Panchakrityar – 

  • Creation and evolution – Sruti,
  • Maintenance and preservation – Sruti
  • Destruction and involution
  • Embodiment of souls – Tribhava
  • Their release from the cycle of life – Anugraha

 Nataraja is the embodiment of tala which is the unit of measurement, mentioned in both Silpa sastra and Natya sastra of space in sculpture and both space and time in dance. Pramana is the realm of proportion in sculpture and Kalapramana, the tempo in dance. The magnificent Nataraja temple at Chidambaram with its main towers decorated with a series of sculptures represents 108 karanas, authenticated by the textual portions from Bharatha’s Natya sastra found on the eastern gopura.

 At Thanjavur, the great architect of the Brihadisvara Temple, Rajaraja, the great patron of art and culture, especially of dance, has carved a series of panels depicting Siva himself performing these karanas. This series of dance panels is a triumphant expression of Rajaraja chola’s devotion to Adavallan, the Lord or dance. There are 108 karanas. Only 88 of the 108 karanas have been completed. Siva is easily distinguished by his 4 arms and other attributes such as the trident, axe, snake and so forth. This earlier series is nearer the spirit of Bharata’s text than the later series of the Chola period at Chidambaram.


In the temple of Sarngapani (i.e.) Vishnu, with Bow, the entrance gopura has a series of karanas in dance, represented almost in the Nataraja temple at Chidambaram or in the Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur. Just as Siva as Nataraja is the Lord of classical dance, Vishnu in the form of Krishna is the Lord of folk dance. He reached the level of the milkmaids by approaching them in their own simple language of folk dance as he could not expect the highest classical form from these maidens though he is one of the three masters of classical dance with Brahma and Siva. It is with this idea in his mind that the form of Krishna has been chosen by the sculptor to delineate the karanas in the Sarngapani temple. As the gopura itself is of the later Chola period, it is purely an expression of the appreciation of the dance in all its fours when the emperors patronised classical dance at its best. The contribution to dance of Vishnu not so well eulogised disturbed the architect as to induce him to represent this beautiful series of karanas. It cannot be denied that this is a Vaishnavite version of the Saivaite series from the Brihadisvara Temple. The very first sculpture here shows the talapushpaputa, the first karana, almost in the same manner as in the case of Siva in the Brihadisvara Temple.


Varieties in all these different dance form necessarily presuppose a great sculptural erudition in the representation of figures as in the case of dance itself which had a long tradition before it was effectively codified in Bharatha’s Natya sastra. Bharatha natva in its solo form with which we are now familiar and as we see it today on the stage is indeed an authenic classical Indian dance form. Its antiquity goes to the Rig Vedic hymns and even earlier, to the figure of the copper dancing girl of Mohenjodaro.

Painting is symbolic in its expression of the spiritual life of India. The painter as a priest learnt religion with his art. The traditional artist of India was considered to be the great descendant of Vishwakarma well versed in all arts, a man of all-round genius. He was an architect, a painter, a sculptor with a knowledge of dancing, music and philosophy. So, these paintings are the paintings of sculptors closely related to the art of dancing as there were no group of artists for painting alone.

Tamil Nadu is the abode of fine arts especially painting, and numerous evidences are found in Sangam literature. The Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur guards some of the wonderful paintings in terms of both technique and beauty in its main shrine directly under the vimana. These paintings are only a continuation of the Sithannavasal paintings in technique and style. There is no marked difference in concept but there is an improvement and progress towards perfection. These figures resemble the beautiful forms of Ajantha paintings and this similarity may be due to the same class of artist following the same Chithalakshanas. All the grace of the classical paintings at Sithannavasal, Panamalai and Kanchipuram is continued in this fine series. The bhava and rasa depicted in these panels have no equal and they are superb in their rhythmic composition showing the perfect movements of the dances exhibiting nritta. The chitrasala shows paintings of Siva seen both as Adavallan, the dancer, and rasika, the one who watches appreciatively. The two lovely maidens who are dancing to the beat of the celestial orchestra are beautifully portrayed. Their execution of movements is powerful and supple with slander waists and graceful mudras. Another remarkable figure of the dancing apsara with her body twisted wonderfully with legs crossed, face turned back with the graceful mudra and the slender body forming a very beautiful bhanga reveals the painter’s high level of proficiency in the Natya sastra. The Sithannavasal paintings of the Pandyas give evidence of the skill, ability, creativity and appreciation of the fine art of painting. On the pillars, of the facade of these caves, there are two dancing apsaras, one of them with the danda hasta and pathaka mudras as in the case of Nataraja in every Siva Temple.


The mystery of Indian temple art is the co-existence and sometimes overlapping of the spiritual and the sublime with intense body consciousness equipped with a learning, piety, sensibility, knowledge of technique and simplicity combining the qualities of the pandits, the bhakthas, the rasikas, the silpis and commoners. The pinnacle of beauty is Siva, who is satya (truth), and the highest form is art personified in the form of Lord Siva who is Truth. In other words, the most beautiful movement of the body is the Hindu concept of the origin of dance.

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