Dancing Girl from Mohenjo-daro

Dancing Girl, Mohenjo-daro, Harappan Civilization, 2700–2100 B.C.E., bronze, 10.5 x 5 x 2.5 cm (National Museum, New Delhi; photo: Gary Todd, CC0)

Dancing Girl, Mohenjo-daro, Harappan Civilization, 2700–2100 B.C.E., bronze, 10.5 x 5 x 2.5 cm (National Museum, New Delhi; photo: Gary Todd, CC0)

This small bronze statuette (only 4 inches in height), depicts a nude young woman, with a coiled hairstyle and bangles adorning her arms. The figure stands with her feet apart and her weight distributed unevenly (often referred to by art historians as contrapposto). She props one arm at her waist and her other arm hangs by her side. The title of the sculpture, Dancing Girl, comes from the archaeologist who unearthed it in 1926 who thought the ancient figure recalled images of dancing nautch girls (female dancers who often performed at royal courts and in salons, especially in colonial India).  

Map showing Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, two of several major sites of the Indus Valley Civilization (area marked in purple). Inset: Mohenjo-daro (photo: Saqib Qayyum, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Map showing Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, two of several major sites of the Indus Valley Civilization (area marked in purple). Inset: Mohenjo-daro (photo: Saqib Qayyum, CC BY-SA 3.0)

This free-standing nude female figure is dated to c. 2500 B.C.E. Its site of origin, Mohenjo-daro, was an important prehistoric city from the Indus Valley civilization (sometimes referred to as the Harappan civilization), and was known for its well-planned cities, large-scale architecture, and one of the earliest urban sanitation systems in the world. Named after the Indus River, the Indus Valley civilization encompassed a vast swath of present-day Pakistan and northwestern India. Unusual in its form and materials—there are very few metal sculptures depicting anatomically correct women found in the Indus Valley—the sculpture gives us a glimpse into the civilization’s worldview and technological advances. 

Anatomy, adornment, and clothing

Dancing Girl, Mohenjo-daro, Harappan Civilization, 2700–2100 B.C.E., bronze, 10.5 x 5 x 2.5 cm (National Museum, New Delhi; photo: Gary Todd, CC0)

Dancing Girl, Mohenjo-daro, Harappan Civilization, 2700–2100 B.C.E., bronze, 10.5 x 5 x 2.5 cm (National Museum, New Delhi; photo: Gary Todd, CC0)

This slender figure has exaggerated proportions—long limbs, a high forehead, large eyes, a wide nose, and full cheeks and lips. Leaning slightly on the right leg, her asymmetrical stance mirrors the uneven distribution of ornamentation on her body—she wears 24 bangles on her left arm and only 4 on the right. This jewelry can be understood as being decorative or as symbolic of rank or status (although its symbolic meaning is still unclear to scholars). She appears to hold a vessel in her left arm, while her right arm is bent and her right hand clenched into a fist that rests at the back of her hip. Her long hair rests in a knot or a bun at the nape of her neck and her face is tilted upwards with a confident demeanor.

Terracotta figure, Harappa (Pakistan), Indus Valley Civilization (National Museum, New Delhi; photo: Gary Todd, CC0 1.0)

Terracotta figure, Harappa (Pakistan), Indus Valley Civilization (National Museum, New Delhi; photo: Gary Todd, CC0 1.0)

We have not yet deciphered the script of the Indus Valley civilization, so all we have are the the works of art themselves to understand the civilization. Comparing this figure to other female figurines from the Indus Valley allows us to formulate hypotheses and theories about what the Dancing Girl might represent.

Most of the figurines—whether depicting men, women, or animals—found in the Indus Valley are made of terracotta—bronze sculptures such as the Dancing Girl are much rarer. Like the Dancing Girl, the terracotta figurines are also depicted wearing jewelry—regardless of gender. Typically, the terracotta figurines of women found in the Indus Valley are not nude; they are depicted with either a belt or a short skirt covering their lower body and some scholars believe they had a cultic function or were, in some way, tied to fertility. What makes the bronze Dancing Girl unique is her full-frontal nudity and her long limbs, which differentiate her from the terracotta figures. According to some scholars, her nudity and physical form may not signal eroticism or fertility but might signify age—specifically youthfulness—or lower status or even a different ethnicity. [1] We also do not know whether the figure was intended to be seen in a nude form. In later practices in South Asia, many sculptures would have been clothed in garments and adorned for ritual processions or worship. Perhaps, this figure too, may have been clothed in a similar fashion. Anthropologist Sharri Clark has suggested that objects made with varying materials (for example bronze or terracotta) may have had different meanings and purposes, and might have even been made for entirely distinct audiences in the Indus civilization. With the limited evidence, it is difficult to know exactly what the Dancing Girl may signify.

Ancient advances in metallurgy 

Dancing Girl, Mohenjo-daro, Harappan Civilization, 2700–2100 B.C.E., bronze, 10.5 x 5 x 2.5 cm (National Museum, New Delhi)

Dancing Girl, Mohenjo-daro, Harappan Civilization, 2700–2100 B.C.E., bronze, 10.5 x 5 x 2.5 cm (National Museum, New Delhi)

It is clear from the metal composition of the statue that the Indus Valley civilization developed new techniques in metallurgy such as creating metal alloys and other sophisticated methods. Indus Valley metalsmiths added tin to copper to produce the alloy bronze, from which the Dancing Girl is made. The amount of tin added varies between 8 to 26 percent; there is also evidence that Indus metallurgists may have recognized that adding arsenic to copper resulted in a harder and more durable material—many Indus Valley copper and copper alloy objects also show the presence of arsenic in them.

Archaeological evidence indicates that copper and bronze were used to make tools, weapons, ornaments, household materials, and items of religious importance, including exquisitely detailed bronze sculptures like the Dancing Girl. Made using a lost-wax casting technique, this ancient artifact was created through a far more technologically challenging process in comparison to the terracotta sculptures that were typical of this period. The lost-wax method of metal casting involves creating a wax model, which is covered with clay, leaving small holes for air passage. These molds are heated in a furnace, causing the wax to melt out, leaving only the outer clay covering which becomes the mold into which molten bronze is poured. Once it cools, the metal solidifies, the clay covering is chipped away and the artist can add finishing touches.

Is the Dancing Girl actually dancing?

The identity and interpretation of this figure continues to be debated by scholars today. Recently, scholars have challenged the original interpretation offered by the early 20th-century British archaeologist John Marshall that the figure represents a dancing girl. They argue that the assumption that this represents a dancing girl only based on her stance is inaccurate and too simplistic. Instead, contemporary scholars have proposed alternative interpretations, including that the figure may be a warrior—due to the asymmetrical ornamentation of her hands which leaves her right arm bare to possibly hold a weapon, her assertive stance and defiant facial expressions. Other scholars have even speculated that her face represents Dravidian features—such as a broader nose, full cheeks and lips—opening up other avenues to understand the ethnic identity of the figure, and by extension, the demographic makeup of the Indus Valley civilization. However, in the case of the Dancing Girl, this speculation is primarily based on physiognomic comparisons relying on stereotypical characteristics associated with Dravidian populations who speak languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam and live mainly in southern India. [2]

As with so many other cultural artifacts uncovered from the Indus Valley sites, the purpose and meaning of the figurine remains a mystery, in large part due to the fact that the Indus script has not yet been fully deciphered. Even so, what appears to be an unassuming small-scale figure at first glance, no more than a few inches tall, reveals to us the advanced metallurgical processes that ancient Harappan sculptors were skilled at. 

Today, the Dancing Girl is on display at the National Museum, Delhi, as a part of its Pre-History and Archaeology collection.

 

Notes:

[1]  This theory was first suggested by John Marshall, who lead the excavations at Mohenjo-daro from 1922–27 and under whose supervision Ernest Mckay unearthed the figure of the Dancing Girl.  

[2] While it is difficult to use the physical attributes of the Dancing Girl as an indicator of the Indus Valley’s demographic makeup, there has been at least one study that explores links between Proto-Dravidian language roots and the languages of the Indus Valley. The study claims that the words used for elephant in Bronze Age Mesopotamia, the elephant-word used in the Hurrian part of an Amarna letter of ca. 1400 B.C.E., and the ivory-word recorded in certain sixth century B.C.E. Old Persian documents, were all originally borrowed from ‘pīlu’, a Proto-Dravidian elephant-word, which is believed to have been prevalent in the Indus valley civilization, and could have been etymologically related to the Proto-Dravidian tooth-word ‘*pal’ and its alternate forms (‘*pīl’/‘*piḷ’/‘*pel’). 


Additional resources 

More on the lost-wax process from The MAP Academy.

John Marshall, ed., Mohenjo-daro and the Indus Civilization, vol 1 (London: Arthur Probstain, 1931).

Romila Thapar, Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997).

Richard Blurton, Hindu Art (London: British Museum Press, 1992).

Sharri R. Clark, “Representing the Indus Body: Sex, Gender, Sexuality, and the Anthropomorphic Terracotta Figurines from Harappa,” Asian Perspectives 42, no. 2 (Fall 2003): pp. 304–28.

Sharri R. Clark, “Material Matters: Representation and Materiality of the Harappan Body,” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 16, no. 3 (2009): pp. 231–61.

Jane McIntosh, The Ancient Indus Valley: New Perspectives (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2008).

Gregory L. Possehl, The Indus Civilization: a Contemporary Perspective (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 2002).

 

Drawing from articles on The MAP Academy

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Cite this page as: The MAP Academy, "Dancing Girl from Mohenjo-daro," in Smarthistory, April 19, 2023, accessed May 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/dancing-girl-mohenjodaro/.