From its origins in the tenth century, during the Chola empire, the image of Shiva Nataraja has become an integral part of modern India’s multicultural, religiously diverse landscape. Nataraja’s significance has expanded beyond the Cholas’ religious, political, and cultural understandings of the deity. It is now layered with many more meanings, including Tamil identity, the origins of Indian dance, and—more broadly — India itself.
Shiva as “Lord of the Dance” evokes the same powerful devotion for many Hindus today as he did during the Chola period, and he is still honored in and around south Indian temples with rituals similar to those of the medieval period. Now, however, worshippers can experience darshan—the ability to attain blessings by seeing and being seen by the deity—through a temple poster or online.
Over the years, Shiva Nataraja has become a general symbol for dance, as well as the inspiration for Bharata natyam, a reconstructed stage form of south Indian temple dance. In Bharata natyam, an image of Shiva Nataraja is often placed on the stage to honor the deity. This symbolism is echoed in the large, brightly lit silhouette of Nataraja that dominates the stage on the Indian television show Nach Baliye. Similar to the U.S. program Dancing with the Stars, Nach Baliye features teams of Bollywood actors in an ongoing dance competition. Even the program’s logo and trophy honor Nataraja, depicting silhouettes of two dancers surrounded by a ring that recalls his cosmic flames.