Dancing Balakrishna

India, Tamil Nadu
Late Chola Dynasty, late 13th–14th centuries
Ester R. Portnow Collection of Asian Art, a Gift of the Nathan Rubin-Ida Ladd Family Foundation

The Chola Dynasty was one of the great kingdoms of South India, extending as far north as the Ganges, as far south as Sri Lanka, and as far east as Myanmar. Chola sculpture is known for its attention to the human form and its dynamic suggestions of bodily movement. This sculpture may have been a temple processional image (utsava murti), with wooden dowels inserted through the loops on the lower sides to carry the image. 
This figure is Balakrishna, literally, child Krishna (one of Vishnu’s ten avataras, or incarnations). He is shown here dancing gracefully with his leg raised in diagonal balance with is outstretched arm. His right hand is in the position of abhaya mudra, a gesture that dispels fear. The sculpture catches a moment of control, balance, and grace.
Balakrishna’s dancing form evokes a well-known narrative in which Krishna reveals his divinity by dancing on the head of the great snake Kaliya. As a child, Krishna was raised in a cowherder’s family in a village on the banks of the river Yamuna. The river became poisoned by Kaliya, who lived in its waters; the trees and vegetation on the river’s banks were dying, as were the cattle that drank from its waters. 
One day Krishna and his friends were playing ball at the river’s edge when the ball went into the dangerous waters. To the dismay of his friends, Krishna jumped into the river to retrieve it. Amidst tumultuous waters indicating a battle, he emerged victorious, dancing on the hood of Kaliya. The snake asked for forgiveness, and his snake wives begged Krishna to spare him. Krishna banished Kaliya and his wives to live in the ocean, and the god’s footprint atop the snake’s hood protects him from his natural enemies. Only when his friends and villagers see Krishna dancing on Kaliya’s hood do they recognize him to be god—one of several narrative episodes in which his divinity is revealed.