Carving a global icon: The Nataraja bronze and Commaraswamy's legacy

Publication Type:

Book Chapters


Asian art and culture: A research volume in honour of Ananda Coomaraswamy, Department of Information, Government of Sri Lanka, Colombo, p.245–256 (2012)



This paper attempts a historiography of the Nataraja bronze which famously came to wider international attention through Ananda Coomaraswamy's (1912) essay, 'Dance of Siva', and his explorations into its symbolism; for which he is arguably best known in posterity. Cast over several hundred centuries, however, with few associated inscriptions, there have been some lacunae in understanding its development in stone and bronze. There have also been debates about the actual or original significance since Coomaraswamy's interpretations seemed to have been based on later texts. Although this bronze is almost synonymous with the Imperial Chola dynasty of Tamil Nadu, there is a certain lack of clarity on earlier and later manifestations and other regional developments in India and in spheres of interacton beyond such as Sri Lanka. Insights from archaeometallurgical and stylistic study and documentation of surviving bronze casting practices in Tanjavur district throw new light on techno-cultural aspects of south Indian bronzes and this enigmatic icon. The place the image has acquired in the global imagination through the writings of well known artists, scientists and thinkers following Coomaraswamy's musings is briefly eludicated here, as well as his contributions to the documentation of arts and crafts and the archaeometallurgy of the southern Indian subscontinent.


Centre for Asian Studies, University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka