Some 20 years ago when we visited a temple in South India, a brahmin led us into a small side shrine with a large statue of Shiva as Nataraja. The only light was the oil lamp he carried with a single flame. Anyone familiar with ‘aarthi’ will know what I mean. Basically, the priest draws circles in the air before the statue with the lamp. In a dark space, this means that that the light picks out a raised leg, then an arm, the head, flames on the aura,… As parts of the statue take turns emerging from the darkness and sinking back into it, Shiva’s cosmic dance comes alive.
At night, in the glassed-in gallery of the Cleveland Museum of Art, my mind returned to that visit to the temple and now, months after I reviewed the museum’s new Asian galleries, the memory returns. Behind the Nataraja, dissipating into the Cleveland night, were the ghostly reflections of other statues in the gallery, all gods.