Nataraj: The Cosmic Dancer

“…This was the Ananda-Tandava, the dance of bliss.  Shiva struck a whole series of poses to stir the imagination.  He finally froze.  This final pose contained the wisdom of the Vedas.  What had not been realized by priests and ascetics after performing hundreds of rituals, was realized by that one pose.” – Devdutt Patnaik, Seven Secrets of Shiva

As the Lord of Dance, the King of Dancers, Lord Shiva is the ultimate teacher.   He teaches through dance because words are too literal to capture the essence of the formless; it can be heard and read, it entices the senses, arouses the emotions of the viewers and invites the mind to analyze it intellectually.  “In this process, tools to deconstruct Maya are passed on.”  However, how many of us dancers really meditate on his teachings, really trust his liberating blows?  When we go up on stage,  how can we experience Lord Shiva as a live entity, as the energy itself that keeps the planets revolving?  How to forget ourselves, forget our fears, and stand unshakable on one leg? This traditional item can be the door that leads to a path of realization that invites the practitioner to dissolve and become as fluid as water and as vigorous as fire.

The item consists of three different moments that ultimately reveal the nature of the deity, and act as a metaphor for the neverhlf-danza-marcial-chhau-3 ending phenomenon of creation and destruction in the universe.  The first portion known as “sthai” depicts a series of poses, or asanas in which Lord Shiva stands to witness the cosmos, dwelling in his infinite, meditating self. Between pose and pose, he shifts through space with ondulating movements that give account to his fluctuating identity: the one who can become water, ever flowing, giving the substance for birth and washing away with death.  The gestures of the hands in each asana communicate qualities, states of mind, elements and the reassuring blessings that invite us not to fear.  His stance is generally on one leg, disclosing the balanced, calm and composed state of the self, where he is comfortable, again free from fear.

The dance then follows to represent the story when a group of Mimansikas (those who yearn to understand the meaning of life) were performing rituals in the forest and Shiva walked past them.  Seeing such an oblivious state of bliss, they were distracted, blamed him, and feared him, for he was so content and blissful that he did not seek wealth, power, or even knowledge.  In Shiva, they saw a threat to all they greedily aspired for and so they decided to destroy him.  Consequently, they used their knowledge to invoke creatures from the fire: first came a tiger, then a serpent and finally a dwarf demon.  Shiva feared none, but instead defeated each and ultimately ripped the demon apart, hence starting to dance.

Third eye opensIn the item, this part starts when The Dancer sits down to meditate, and with the upbeat change of the music is shown to have been disturbed by a demonic entity.  This demon is precisely our ego, the fear of the Mimansikas, our pride, or greed and ambition, even for spiritual attainment. As of that moment, Shiva unleashes the fire of his third eye to burn and destroy our attachments and petty illusions. The demon is elusive, hard to catch, so He chases him around the stage, until with a swift jump he stands on his back.   This forceful dancing is known as Tandava, demanding attention through realization, evoking thought and img_4279provoking consciousness.  After having ripped out the insides of the demon, he proceeds to throw him at each of the four corners of the world.  This is enlightenment, thus the dance of bliss starts.

The last part of the dance, known as Nataki, is supossed to disclose the mesmerizing ecstasy in which Nataraja lingers.  Once again, this is the chance for the Dancer to let go.  I imagine his form expanding, the locks of his hair flowing through the universe, his hands juggling planets.  By the time I finish my last round of paltas, just about to take the chouk stance and turn quickly and taking up that final pose. The mastery lies in holding it a little after the music has finished, so that iShiva's dance of blisss can unfold its mysteries in stillness. The most mystifying thing is that the dance really begins after having finished.

The music for this traditional item of the Northern School (Uttar Sahi) follows a 12 beat pattern in the sthai part, then a 7 beat in the antara and 16 beats in the Nataki. One of its best exponents was Guru Sri Hari Nayak.

On the white hill tops of eternity, he reveals his infinite soul behind a peaceful veil of fire.  Blissful just to be, he witnesses the unfathomable deepness and watches over us in compassionate silence.  “Oh Lord Shiva, do not hurt your feet by dancing on the rocky slopes of Himalayas, instead, come and dance in my heart.”