Why is Lord Shiva famous for dancing

The cosmic dancer

A fascinating exhibition is dedicated to the cosmic dancer, which shows the many facets of this god. Shiva's dance is fierce and wild, full of passion and desire, full of destruction and magic. Shiva, smeared with ashes, dances on the cremation area, he determines the rhythm of life and time. A network of complex contexts of meaning, both cosmological and mythical, entwines around his figure. On the one hand, it embodies his five aspects: he is creator, sustainer, destroyer, player and redeemer. On the other hand, it evokes the five elements fire, water, earth, wind, space or ether, which in turn are assigned to five central Shiva temples. This equation is not to be seen as a number game or esoteric speculation, but clarifies the connection between gods and humans, between microcosm and macrocosm.

The dancing Shiva is a transportable cult figure. As a processional bronze, it belongs in a precisely defined ritual context: every year Shiva comes out of the temple as Nataraja during a festival and shows himself to the public. Its appearance ends the dark season, the tropic of the sun in winter.

Shiva Nataraja, Shiva as Lord of the Dance has become a universal symbol today. However, little is known about the cultural background in South India. Nothing is known about the vegetative logic of the associated rituals and festivals with their cycle of creation, growth and decay, their integration into the seasons and the liturgical calendar - although this cultural practice still lives on in India today. The "globalized" Shiva exists without any local reference; it has moved away from its South Indian origins. The only thing that counts is the spiritual concept as the big idea behind everything. The exhibition aims to correct this distortion. Thanks to the field research carried out in Tamil Nadu by Saskia Kersenboom and Johannes Beltz especially for this exhibition, previously unknown contexts of meaning could be uncovered.

The exhibition presents 33 exquisite bronze sculptures and 5 monumental stone sculptures from the Chola period, i.e. from the 9th to 12th centuries. It also shows selected 18th century South Indian paintings.

Shiva appears in the works of art in his diverse manifestations: as a beggar, as a musician, as a dancer or as the husband of the goddess Parvati. In addition, there are figures of his wife in her manifold aspects as well as her divine children Ganesha and Skanda (Tamil Murukan). In addition to the museum's own works of art, the exhibition shows works of art from leading museums in Europe, North America and India.

Another highlight are the figures of the 63 Shivaite saints from the 6th to 9th centuries, whose songs are still sung today. The strong visual impact of this "army" of saints is enhanced by the stories that surround them.

An important, more didactic part is devoted to bronze production: Here visitors learn how bronzes are cast in the lost form in India. The famous South Indian workshops of Swamimalai with their bronze foundries are the focus of interest, because they continue this tradition today. Raw material, wax figures, blanks and almost finished bronzes illustrate the entire manufacturing process of a bronze casting.

In terms of design, the exhibition draws on the structures of Hindu temple rituals in order to reach the visitor on an emotional level. In keeping with Hindu aesthetics, she creates adbhuta rasa, moments of being enchanted, amazed and fascinated. In doing so, she consciously plays with several levels of perception. It celebrates the artistic quality of the objects shown, at the same time thematizes our culturally determined perception and counteracts this with Hindu practices. After all, it is important to understand that all the objects shown are an expression of a comprehensive cultural practice. The dancing Shiva includes handicrafts, poetry, rituals, dance and music, but above all a wealth of emotions, deep awe and devotion.

A specially produced documentary summarizes the main aspects of the exhibition. In around 15 minutes, the visitor receives an introduction to the meaning of the dancing god Shiva, experiences a procession in South India, casts a bronze in Swamimalai's workshops and meets temple servants who recite religious chants. An interactive computer simulation ("In the face of the goddess Kamakshi") allows visitors to virtually visit a Shivaite goddess temple, explore all the shrines and take part in a procession. Insights into the world of the dancing God are given in words, sounds and images.

The exhibition includes a catalog including a DVD with the film shown in the exhibition. The catalog introduces the dancing Shiva on his local stage in Tamil Nadu, South India. In her essay, Saskia Kersenboom explains the logic of daily rituals and annual festivals. Using a liturgical calendar, she opens the curtain for the complex games between gods and people.


"Shiva Nataraja: The Cosmic Dancer". Edited by Johannes Beltz, with a contribution by Saskia Kersenboom, approx. 224 pages, numerous color object and field photographs, 23 x 30 cm, cardboard tape, thread-stitched. With DVD (playing time 15 minutes) ISBN 978-3-907077-38-2. Subscription price until March 1, 2009: CHF 58.00, EUR 42.00; thereafter CHF 78.00, EUR 56.00

Shiva Nataraja - The cosmic dancer
Werner Abegg Hall
November 16, 08 to March 1, 09



  • November 16, 2008 March 1, 2009 /