The statue, a bronze cast, an alloy obtained by blending two-third of copper and one-third of tin, a tougher medium than any metal : copper, brass … , used for casting images, and hence more valued in art-world, represents a female figure engaged in dance. The statue, a contemporary artifact but the aggregate of a millennium old art-tradition, is from a bronze-caster’s workshop of Swamimalai, one of a few traditional centres in India engaged in the art of bronze casting for generations now. Swamimalai bronze-casts are known for purity of both, the medium and the craftsmanship, and above all for adhering to the tradition which has its roots in tenth-eleventh century Chola bronzes. Difficult as it is, especially due to its high melting point and quick-hardening nature, often the melted metal not flowing all across the mould before it turned into a solidified mass destroying all labour and multiplying production cost, bronze casting is almost an obsolete art confining to a very few places in India, Swamimalai, a small village in Tamil Nadu, being one, and even here the production is very meagre and getting thinner every day.
The artifact represents a female figure performing a dance, one of India’s most celebrated arts enjoying social as well as ecclesiastical sanction as part of temple rituals and by its association with divine figures, Shiva, Krishna, Vishnu and Kali in particular. While Shiva and Kali are revered as the innovators of dance, Vishnu and Krishna, his incarnation, performed it for subduing demonic powers, Vishnu for subduing Mahabali, the demon chief, and Krishna, the notorious serpent Kalia. In dance-related classicism gender is irrelevant, that is, no dance form is restricted either to a male dancer or a female; however, in general, a dance of beauty, elegance and tenderness better befits a female form while that with fast moves expressing a wrathful state, awe or fear or explodes with energy, is more characteristic to a male form. This again is not the universal law at least in Indian context. Shiva is known to have performed both ‘lasya’ – the dance of beauty, as well as ‘tandava’ – the dance of dissolution; Kali performed the awe-inspiring dance of destruction.
As reflects in moves and body’s gestures of the figure in the statue, the represented dance-form reveals a masculine character as has a dance like ‘tandava’ – Shiva’s dance for dissolution. The body’s moves manifest two ‘bhavas’ – emotions : annihilation and ‘abhay’ – freedom from fear. These are the essential components of ‘tandava’. In the diction of dance a fully straightened arm, as the left arm in the statue, with the palm turned downwards, is the expression of dissolution or the end, in Shaivite context, the end of the Creation that Shiva causes through ‘tandava’. ‘Tandava’ is also the assurance as to what is being dissolved will re-emerge, and hence a gesture of ‘abhay’ that the position of the figure’s right hand symbolises. In the statue ‘abhay’ has been supplemented with ‘vitarka’ – interpretation, suggesting that ‘tandava’ is not a mere dance form, moving the physique but the subtlest doctrine defining the creative cycle from evolution to dissolution. Perhaps to suit the dance form, the craftsman has modeled the figure largely on masculine lines, except her sensuously cast breasts and beautifully braided long hair.
The statue has been installed on a tall multi-tiered pedestal with the base moulding consisting of conventionalised lotus design, the top, plain, and the rest, variously conceived and cast. With the energy bursting from her entire being the dancer’s figure has bent into various curves, those above the waist being mild. Both feet are firmly fixed on the ground, though while the left leg and foot are shot further leftwards, the right leg and foot have bent angularly. With elegantly modeled breasts, broad shoulders, subdued belly, voluminous hips, long fingers and a bit oval round face : well fed cheeks, sharp nose, meditative eyes, the figure has been modeled on classical iconographic parameters. Besides a highly ornate ‘antariya’ – lower wear, and a beautifully designed ‘stana-pata’ – breast-band, her ensemble includes a long sash, held on her right arm and a beautifully conceived ‘patta’ – decorative textile consisting of seven folds worn in the centre of the parting of legs. Besides her exceptionally ornate ear-ornaments and girdle along its other components the figure has been appropriately bejeweled.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.