Dance in South Asian Art

1 Krishna-Dances-with-the-cowherd-women

The unusual theme for this exhibition allows the visitor to explore the representation of dance in South Asian art, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayan region from the 1st to the 21st century. Dance is omnipresent in the arts of this region and has long been a key element in the world’s image of India and nearby countries. More often than the divine beings of other cultures, the gods of Hinduism and Buddhism dance to express their creative – and destructive – energies.Through fluid rhythmic movements, they set the pulse of the universe and the human spirit. Some 120 artworks are drawn from US museums and private collections, works including bronze sculptures, as well as works in stone, ivory, and wood and paintings, jewellery, textiles and contemporary works in new media. In addition to representations of dance from India, works from Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia are also on show

Through religious, courtly and everyday objects, museum audiences can explore how dance occupies a uniquely prominent place in the cultures of South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Himalayan region. In daily life, people have long danced for worship, festivals and for public and private entertainment. All these dances, both sacred and secular, have been represented – or embodied – in sculpture and paintings over centuries, and more recently, in film and new media.

Dance of the Gods

Representations of the dance of the gods provides religious and ethical lessons to devotees and also symbolises divine power and majesty. Dance was – and is – not only for delight. Visitors can experience the emotion of dance in these artworks for themselves, in all its forms – celebratory, for divine love, romance, devotion, power, or for transformation, asking audiences to consider the compelling visual language of dance through its many permutations. The exhibition also demonstrate the exceptional importance and power of dance in religious thought, literature, politics, and societal structures.

The idea for the exhibition came from an unusual beginning. In February 2019, the Asian Art Museum hosted a workshop where eight scholars from diverse fields, including dance theory, religious studies, history, and art history met with professionals from the museum, including curators, and specialists in other areas of a museum’s work. This diversity led to a fruitful discussion of a potential exhibition and what topics and themes could be considered. Key themes discussed that eventually formed the backbone of the exhibition included the uses of dance and related art to bolster royal power and transmit royal messages and the dynamics of gender and sexuality in dance traditions and artworks. Ainsley M Cameron, Curator of South Asian Art, Islamic Art & Antiquities at the Cincinnati Art Museum eventually joined Forrest McGill, Chief Curator at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco to become co-curator and the Cincinnati museum the co-organiser.

Religious and Social Functions of Dance

In the introduction to the catalogue, Forrest McGill and Ainsley M Cameron emphasise that both the exhibition and the catalogue focus on the religious and social functions of dance, as represented or suggested in artworks on show. However, they continue, a basic question arose during their research that eventually became a connecting thread between the disparate artworks: β€˜What is dance accomplishing here?’ As the curators point out, less emphasised are the technique, postures, schools of dance, and the history of performance, although they can also be interpreted through these works. Both in the catalogue and the exhibition, the artworks are grouped into five sections according to curatorial responses to the fundamental question of what is being accomplished: destruction and creation, devotion, subjugations, glorification and celebration.

The first section, Destruction and Creation surveys divine dances that bring about cosmic or global transformation. In Devotion, the mutual longing of god and devotee is explored through dance that creates connections between earthly and divine realms. The third section, Subjugation, explores the power of dance in the conquest of negative forces. Glorification complicates the idea of reverence and features art objects that honour the god and king. The final section, Celebration, looks at dance and dances as symbols of exuberance, charm, and joy.

Power, Gender, and Sexuality

Three thematic threads – power, gender, and sexuality – intertwine throughout the exhibition, uniting artworks from different regions, religions, and cultures. For example, in instances across divine and earthly realms, dance embodies elements of power: Shiva dances to destroy and re-create the world, wielding immense power that controls the cosmos. Krishna dances on the head of a vanquished foe, his power displayed through physical force and perseverance. An earthly king emulates the king of the gods, Indra, by maintaining a troupe of dances to entertain and exalt him (and to demonstrate he has the wealth for such a status display)., thus exercising and broadcasting his power.

Moving from the court to the divine realm, you can find multiple male deities represented dancing, such as Shiva, Ganesha, and especially Krishna. Each is sometimes watched by goddesses, female celestial figures, or earthly women, encouraging us to consider the dynamics of viewing anew. Asking who does not dance, or at least is not shown dancing, Β is instructive. Among the incarnations of Vishnu, the hero Rama (Krishna’s equal, and in some ways opposite) does not dance. Neither does the creator god Brahma. Neither do exalted teachers and prophets such as Muhammad, the Sikh gurus, or the Jain tirthankaras, nor the Buddha, understood either as an earthly preceptor or as a cosmic abstraction.

Monarchs and leaders, male or female, are rarely seen dancing. No doubt there are many reasons, but one may be that dance – associated with the sensuous and erotic, with emotional and artistic expression, and, potentially, with the loss of control – seemed inappropriate in figures tasked with the establishment and maintenance of righteous order in the cosmos or on earth. Shiva and Krishna, as well as the tantric Buddhist deity Hevajra, on the other hand, are transgressors, disregarding or flouting conventional social norms and offering transcendence through divine ecstasy. In other worlds, the power imbued in their dances disrupted established orders so as to transcend; such disruption within earthly and often political landscapes might be catastrophic.

Dancers and visual artists have long inspired each other. Most depictions of dance in sculpture and painting were no doubt informed by dance performance witnessed by the sculptors and painters. An early Indian text notes that β€˜without a knowledge of the art of dancing, the rules of painting are very difficult to be understood’. Carrying this though forward, dancers must have had images of sculptures and paintings in their heads. When Indian classical dance was revived and reconstituted in the 20th century, or when the Cambodian royal ballet sought inspiration for costumes and headdresses, dancers, choreographers, and designers studied ancient temple reliefs for postures, gestures, and attire. These entwined histories play a long and productive part in our understanding of dance in the arts (and the art of dance) today.

Scholars have studied dance in the art of South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayas extensively for a century or more. The curators of this exhibition hope that in future years the publication accompanying the exhibition will add to the greater understanding of the subject and will enrich the appreciation of those who understand the appeal – but perhaps not the deep, multitudinous meanings – of dance in this region.

Until 5 February, 2023, Cincinnati Museum of Art, Β Then at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco,, from 31 March to 10 July, 2023. A catalogue accompanies the exhibitionr