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How the Indian Icon Nataraja Danced His Way From Ancient History to Modern Physics

Dancing before a corpse wasn’t a new idea to me. Discovering a god in it is what left me stunned.

Decades of watching movies in multiple south Indian languages had not prepared me for it. Neither had tripping on koothu, the dance form popular among cinema-lovers in that part of the country.

Yet, here I was one September day in 2018, searching for hints of lord Nataraja, the fountainhead of most Indian dance forms, in this most unruly of performances, Saavukoothu—“death dance.”

A street dance practiced by some Tamils when they accompany the departed to the final resting place, Saavukoothu doesn’t demand any of the refinement of the more evolved classical traditions like Bharatanatyam or Kathak. There is only one rule: Let go completely.

I’d been reading up on Nataraja, the dancing version of the feral Hindu god Shiva, for weeks. I hoped to trace his origins and evolution over a period of nearly five millennia, a search sparked after I was smitten by a famed sculpture in a Karnataka town. Tranquil-yet-ferocious according to Hindu mythology, Shiva is said to reside at Mount Kailasa, now in the Tibetan Himalayas. The third pillar of the triumvirate that includes Brahma and Vishnu, he is believed to be easy to please yet supremely destructive.

My search took me to Chennai, capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and home to perhaps one of the greatest collection of ancient Nataraja statues under one roof at the Government Museum in Egmore. One of the experts I spoke to hinted that apart from mainstream dance forms, even something as raw as Saavukoothu could be linked to Shiva. My curiosity kindled, I began visiting the city’s crematoria, hoping to bump into its dancers or even witness it.

There I met the wiry Rajkumar, head of a group of percussion artistes who lead Saavukoothu. For the 38-year-old, who uses only his first name, playing the drums for this street dance has been a family tradition, yet one he was too modest to hold forth on. “My grandpa could have given you more details. Unfortunately, he’s no more. I am still a novice when it comes to the porul (crux) of koothu,” Rajkumar told me, directing me instead to Ragothaman, a priest at a local temple.


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