Nataraja Reimagined Across Cultures

Cartoon-like illustration of Shiva Nataraja
Sanjay Patel offers a new visual interpretation of Shiva Nataraja using his unique illustration style.
Nataraja from The Little Book of Hindu Deities
Copyright © Sanjay Patel, 2006
Reprinted with permission of International Creative Management
First published by Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

In the twenty-first century, the image of Shiva Nataraja has become popularized and repurposed across the globe. There is a natural tension when such a powerful deity in Hindu belief is brought into new secular contexts. People worldwide are seeing Nataraja through a multitude of lenses—commercial, personal, scientific, and artistic—and finding deep but differing meanings.

One striking example has its roots in twentieth-century physics. After physicist Fritjof Capra’s book The Tao of Physics was published in 1975, Shiva Nataraja became a symbol of the movement of matter in the pattern of creation and destruction. A large sculpture of Nataraja stands outside the European Center for Research in Particle Physics (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland, underlining the link between cosmic forces and subatomic matter. In this context, Nataraja is also a political symbol for India’s contribution to the sciences.

Along with appearing as a popular image on merchandise, Nataraja has been reinterpreted by artists to address issues in today’s global society. Israeli artist Izhar Patkin, for example, created a glass sculpture fusing the deity with Brazilian entertainer Carmen Miranda and African-American performer Josephine Baker. The work, titled Where Each is Both, explores the confluences of these three figures as dancers and as boundary-crossers, creating and destroying on cosmic and human scales.

Indian-American graphic designer Sanjay Patel has depicted Nataraja in his unique illustration style, which is partly inspired by Japanese cartoons and comics. His brightly colored, two-dimensional deities sport large heads, big eyes, and stubby limbs. In his collection of illustrations and information on the Hindu pantheon, The Little Book of Hindu Deities, Patel uses this style to bring a deliberate playfulness to the exploration of Hindu gods and epics.