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The Dance of Shiva

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About the Book   The Dance of Shiva was a remarkable book for its time. It discussed in depth the unique nature of the Indian ethos understood by so few in the Western world and misinterpreted by so many. A collection of fourteen leactures, these essays on Indian art and culture offer a lucid representation of the opinion and attitudes held by Indian intellectuals during the British Raj   Ranging from topics such as music durin...

About the Book


The Dance of Shiva was a remarkable book for its time. It discussed in depth the unique nature of the Indian ethos understood by so few in the Western world and misinterpreted by so many. A collection of fourteen leactures, these essays on Indian art and culture offer a lucid representation of the opinion and attitudes held by Indian intellectuals during the British Raj


Ranging from topics such as music during vedic times, Indian attitudes towards family, women and love analyses of the symbolism of Nataraja and the many armed gods of India to the Indian concept of beauty. The dance of  Shiva is an effervescent account of the Indian experience through the ages.


About the Author


Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947) was a philosopher, historian and a patron of Indian art and culture. He a patron of Indian art and culture. He introduced an essence of ancient Indian art and its principle to the Western world through a number of books and articles. His life’s work was dedicated to metaphysics and symbolism, and he is regarded as one of the founders of the Perennialism movement.




I first encountered The Dance of Shiva in the library of the Indian. Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla. I was working on my PhD thesis, and thanks to my husband being a Fellow at the Institute, I had access to the wonderful library collection there. One of my chapters dealt with Shiva in the form of Nataraja, exemplified in the icons in stone and bronze of the Chola period. I remember reading with awe the description that Coomaraswamy gave of the philosophical dimensions of Shiva's dance, thereby interpreting the icon of Nataraja as the perfect amalgam of the mythical, philosophical and aesthetic aspects of Indian culture. I was greatly moved by Coomaraswamy's interpretation, and it influenced my reading of the rich iconographic material that I was working with in the context of South India.


One of the major arguments that Coomaraswamy makes with regard to Shiva's dance relates to its cosmic significance, symbolizing the creation, maintenance and destruction of the universe, and ultimately its rejuvenation. In other words, the dance of Shiva is the signifier of cosmic activity envisaged in five aspects (pancakritya): srishti or creation, sthiti or maintenance, samhara or destruction, tirobhava or disappearance/concealment and anugraha or grace. In fact, the pancakshara, the five syllables, in Shiva's name-na- ma-shi-va-ya-are themselves seen as representing this five-fold creative activity of the god. What Shiva creates is both the manifest and unmanifest world; what he destroys are the illusory bonds that fetter, not only the world at large, but every individual soul. The symbolism of fire, a visual connect between the earth and the sky, the perceived and the intuitive and the tangible and the intangible, is analyzed through the association of Shiva's dance with the burning grounds. This is then represented in the beautiful circle of fire-the tiruvasi-that encompasses the icon of Shiva as Nataraja in the Indic imagination. The ananda or bliss of Shiva's dance, ultimately, is to meditate upon the destruction of maya (illusion), the trampling of mala, anava and avidya ("evil"), and the freeing of the soul from the bonds of karma (causality/rebirth). I am certain that no one who reads this essay on Shiva's dance can remain unmoved by it, which explains why luminaries like Rabindranath Tagore, Fritjof Capra and Romain Rolland, among others, have lavished praise on it.


Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy was born on 22 August 1877 in Colombo, Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known). His father was Sir Muthu Coomaraswamy, a distinguished figure in Ceylon's political life, who became a Tamil representative of the Legislative Council in the system of separate electorates introduced during British colonial rule. His mother was an Englishwoman, Elizabeth Clay Beebe. When Ananda's father died two years after his birth, his mother returned to England with her only child. In England, Ananda received the best of education, and was awarded a bachelor's degree in geology and botany in 1900. Three years later, he was appointed Director of the Mineralogical Survey of Ceylon, a position he held till 1907. He travelled around the country extensively, a job requirement, and in the process got to learn about the traditional arts and crafts of Sri Lanka. His first publication, Medieval Sinhalese Art (1908), was the result of these initial efforts, and remains one of the best catalogues of the region's craft traditions.


Perhaps his travels inspired him, or it could be the experience of living in the colony after growing up in the centre of the empire: Coomaraswamy came to understand the nature of colonialism, and the significance of nationalism in the Indian subcontinent and in Sri Lanka. And of course, one must remember that his father was a well-known political figure. At any rate, Coomaraswamy entered the public domain not merely as a government servant but also as a social reformer with a political agenda. He founded the Ceylon Social Reform Society in 1905, and published a journal, The Ceylon National Review, from 1906 to 1911.1 The philosophy behind the society and its activities was to retrieve and rejuvenate the traditional art and culture of Sri Lanka, embodied in the village communities that were untouched by the phony westernization of the educated urban population. In a rather Gandhian manner, he declared that the village, not industrialization, could truly bring about modern progress, because the community ensured the economic security of all its members. Despite what his critics argued, Coomaraswamy's romantic idealization of the illiterate villager who carried with him an intrinsic knowledge of the unbreakable bonds between nature, life and a higher being (he often used the term interchangeably with God) did not stem from any parochialism. On the contrary, he often talked of two essential requisites for social reform. First, that the basis for the revitalization of society should be cultural pluralism, and hence all Sri Lankans should be taught Sanskrit, Pali, Sinhala and Tamil so that they could truly appreciate their culture. (Related to this was his belief that the Sri Lankan heritage cannot be separated from the Indian one.) And second, that the ideal requirement of modern times was the blending of the superior features of Eastern civilization with the best features of the West.


From the 1930s, Coomaraswamy was greatly influenced by the Traditionalist Movement spearheaded by Rene! Guenon in France, particularly its evocation of the Philosophia Perennis. The latter affirmed the creation of all religions and philosophies from one primordial source, which explained the essential unity and truth of all great traditions. Coomaraswamy's constant reference, when talking of Hindu and Buddhist art, to the underlying symbolism, cultural ideas and values that coloured every aspect of art and architectural design was the result of his belief in the common, unchanging philosophical core of all Eastern civilizations. When he spoke of the villager or someone rooted in the community as someone who carried within him or her a sense of the past, he was essentially referring to this value system. He was convinced that no study of Indian art, or indeed of any culture, would be complete with a clinical analysis of measurements and structure, or even with written texts as the final authority. For him, the ordinary artisan who was illiterate but who had learned his craft from his father, who had picked it up from his father before him, carried this sense of what constituted the essence of a religion, culture or symbolic universe. This was why, he believed, no matter which part of the subcontinent you went to, you would feel, despite the regional variations, a sense of deja vu.


These then were the concerns that informed Ananda Coomaraswamy's writings, be they academic analyses of early Indian architecture or his more polemical essays on nationalism. Today, it is the fashion to debunk Coomaraswamy and his philosophy of art, and most scholars would try to distance themselves from his interpretative frameworks. He has been roundly condemned for his exoticization and romanticizing of Indian (what he meant actually was South Asian) culture and tradition. Some have even accused him of over- reading the sources. His ideas are seen as bordering on obscurantism, and he is condemned for valorizing patriarchal and other regressive social norms. This is especially with regard to his more political and reformist essays.


Over the past decade, teaching a course on the history of early Indian art and architecture in JNU, I have found Coomaraswamy re-enter my frames of reference in a major way. I find myself faced with a peculiar problem when I discuss the work of stalwarts like Coomaraswamy and Stella Kramrisch, another legend in the field of art. Students refuse to read them unmediated by the fasbionistas of the art history world, and very often there is an empty echoing of the sophisticated critiques of the apparently "traditionalist" viewpoint. Coomaraswamy was no fool, and he vehemently denied the label of "traditionalist" that he accused some critics of employing for the sake of convenience, and to avoid acknowledging the core questions he and others were raising: 1) that the appreciation of ancient art in the 19th and early 20th centuries was mired in the cultural degeneration of contemporary Europe, and 2) that the "manufacture" of the art object had removed it from the realm of art to that of commerce? It may have been appropriate for him to talk of the European colonial domination with regard to the first point. In many ways, his critique of modern art and art sensibilities anticipated the more sophisticated articulation by Walter Benjamin in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1938), despite a fundamental difference in their political ideology-Benjamin was a Marxist, and Coomaraswamy was deeply suspicious of Marxists. On the contexts of production Benjamin says: "Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence.',6 And again, "that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition."? Clearly, Coomaraswamy was not alone in recognizing the refashioning of taste, culture and particularly, consumption by modernity in post-industrialized societies of the West. But possibly what attracts the plentiful criticism that is laid at his door is his open avowal of the philosophy of Perennialism.

To my mind, no one who has travelled the length and breadth of India, and indeed South Asia, would dispute Coomaraswamy's claim that the local knowledge-keepers, whom we tend to dismiss summarily, often reveal deep insights into the history and culture of a particular site, locality and even region. More importantly, I have read a number of scholarly works that describe, enumerate and categorize monuments that leave me untouched-they could be talking about anything under the sun, they are that banal. Even worse for me is the high theoretical spiel that gets thrown at us ever so often in the name of art appreciation, where, when I do manage to plod through some of these, I wonder if we're talking about the same object, monument or culture! I am not advocating an uncritical acceptance of Coomaraswamy's ideas and writings. But I do think that by pushing his insights outside our frames of analyses, we would be doing him and ourselves a great disservice.


The Dance of Shiva remains one of my favourite readings, and in this collection of essays, we have an interesting mix of scholarly wisdom, social activism and political rhetoric. This year, we have just passed the 135th birth anniversary of Ananda Coomaraswamy, and I am happy that, in a fitting tribute to the great thinker, Rupa is reissuing this volume. The academic and the general reader will find this volume valuable as much for the insights it gives us into the life and times of Ananda Coomaraswamy as for its sheer scholarship.






What has India Contributed to Human Welfare?


Hindu View of Art: HISTORICAL


Hindu View of Art: THEORY OF BEAUTY


That Beauty is a State


Buddhist Primitives


The Dance of Shiva


Indian Images with Many Arms


Indian Music


Status of Indian Women




Intellectual Fraternity


Cosmopolitan View of Nietzsche


Young India


Individuality, Autonomy and Function





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Item Code: NAJ033 Author: Ananda Coomaraswamy Cover: Paperback Edition: 2013 Publisher: Rupa Publication Pvt. Ltd. ISBN: 9788129120908 Language: English Size: 8.0 inch x 5.0 inch Pages: 192 (26 B/W Illustrations) Other Details: Weight of the Book: 140 gms
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