The grand finale in the series of the webinars as part of the Dance India Asia Pacific 202 was Nataraja & the Cosmos by the vivacious, versatile, and knowledgeable V R Devika. In her world, when things unfold, they tumble out like stories that draw you in, and allow you to imagine, and experience the story itself.
Starting off her lecture with a personal story of how she first became familiar with the world of dance, and that of Shiva, and to the world of Nataraja and Chidambaram, Devika began by acknowledging the many people who have been a part of helping her nurture her innate curiosity and interest as a “non-performing dancer” in all things to do with art, astrology, mythology, history, and culture.
Her foray into Chidambaram and the fascinating world that temple encompasses began by dancing in the thousand pilar hall, with her gurus, The Dhananjayans. “I still remember it rained that evening and there was a beautiful sheet of water between the artistes’ performing and the audience sitting,” she said, “And from thereon, Nataraja for me became a passion of sorts; of course, I must say that I was first introduced to his world by the very knowledgeable Dr Nagaswami who has the ability of transforming everyone with the kind of passion he has for Nataraja.”
Devika’s lecture allowed audiences a glimpse into the very layered world of Nataraja, a world that is a coming together of science and imagination. Taking us through a series of slides, and images, interspersed with stories, she spoke of the many aspects of Shiva, the formless, the nirguna, the lingam, and of course the Nataraja, Devika’s lecture was filled with facts, and interesting pieces of trivia that surround them.
It isn’t a matter of coincidence that Devika’s lecture coincided on a very auspicious day — considered to be an occurrence once every 400 years where all the planets, the time-keeping tools of the universe, are supposed to be in their own respective grahams (homes) — and the lecture attempted to celebrate the innate connection between the Nataraja and the cosmos, at large.
Amongst the many stories that Devika shared was one of a handsome king who had 27 wives and spent a little time with each of them, daily. Unfortunately, his 26 wives felt he was particularly partial to one of them, Rohini and spent a little more time with her. Following a complaint to their father who cursed the king and later went to amend the curse, the king grew in size a little by little every day to appear in his full form once every 15 days and disappear little by little thereafter, only to appear again. “Of course we know this as the waxing and the waning of the moon but what’s interesting about this story is that Rohini, the star in the constellation of Taurus is considered to be many light years closer to the earth and in reality, the moon, while moving around the earth actually spends a little loner time with Rohini. Now isn’t it amazing how they made up a story like this?”
Devika’s lecture brought to fore the unique relationship of the gods we worship to the cosmos and talked of the “inter-mingling of science and imagination” in making them as fascinating as they are, ensuring dancers and scholars continue to engage with it, attempting to unravel layer fact and fiction, one after another.
Spending time on the Nataraja itself, she also highlighted the fantastic art and iconography that it has come to be; how it incorporates the five elements, the way the hair stands horizontally, making us wonder how Shiva in this form is dynamic although static, and still even while seeming in the middle of a movement.
What’s equally fascinating is how the Nataraja itself has been chiselled to detail by one sculptor after another and how artistic liberties have lead to so many similar but unique versions of the Nataraja. Like god is in the detail.
Befittingly, the lecture ended with a performance by Gayatri Sachithanandar of Apsaras Arts on the famous Natanam Aadinaar by Gopalakrishna Bharathi. This song refers to the story of Agastya, Tillai in Chidambaram and the Sollukattu swaras in it, make this dance energizing, interesting and beautiful. It is a celebration of Shiva, the cosmic dancer, who balances creation and destruction.