The Influence

Miles Franklin award-winner Amanda Lohrey on how the Hindu god Shiva danced creation into being. By Kate Holden.

Amanda Lohrey

The statue of Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja) that the National Gallery of Australia returned to India.
Credit: Supplied

Last week, Tasmanian writer Amanda Lohrey won the Miles Franklin Literary Award for her eighth book of fiction, The Labyrinth. It tells the story of Erica Marsden, who moves to a small coastal town near where her mentally disturbed artist son is jailed for homicidal negligence. Two of Lohrey’s previous novels were shortlisted for the prize and she has either won or been shortlisted for the Victorian, New South Wales and Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards and the 2012 Patrick White Award.

Her novels examine contemporary lives, evoking the complex implications of art practice, communism, structural inequality, personal grief and human variousness. She is acclaimed for her astute depictions of action and reaction, dilemma, yearning and consolation. Author of two Quarterly Essays and articles on politics, she has also taught creative writing in Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra, and currently lives in north-east Tasmania. 

For The Influence, Lohrey has chosen to discuss different statues of Shiva as Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, including the 900-year-old Chola dynasty bronze sculpture that the National Gallery of Australia returned to India after it was discovered it had been looted.

Tell us about this work you’ve chosen.

I thought I’d choose something that’s eternal, unchanging: I’ve loved it for decades. We used to have an outstanding example in Canberra; we don’t have it anymore. What was it, $5.5 million worth of bronze? But I love it and I even have a copy of it in my house. But what writer wouldn’t like a statue of the Lord of Creation dancing creation into being? I mean, that’s what you’re trying to do, except you’re sitting in a chair getting a bad back and not dancing.

I remember taking a friend who was an astrophysicist, and he said, it’s like an image of quantum physics: the dance of particles, of waves: the incredible dynamism of matter that we can’t see. Aristotle said: “the soul never thinks without an image”. I told my friend that and he said, “Yes, physicists think mathematically, but here is an actual image of what they’re dealing with.” I later discovered that the Indian government had given a $2 million copy of the statue to CERN in Geneva where they have the Large Hadron Collider. Isn’t that lovely?

Shiva is trampling on a little figure, which is Ignorance, and underneath that is the lotus. The lotus is Illumination: in Hindu iconography it’s the most beautiful flower, but it grows up out of the mud, so it means possibility out of destruction, grief, or whatever. And the snake, a snake with a purpose: the thing we fear most is contained within the dance. There’s so much symbolism wrapped up in this one image.

There were two in the National Gallery: one with the wheel of fire around it, and there’s also one without the wheel, and I like that one best. It looked as if the god was about to lift off the pedestal and dance around you; it seemed to be dancing into the air. I would take friends there, my elderly mother, and she said, “Oh, this is the best thing in the gallery!” It’s a wonderful idea, that instead of a static god on a cross or an icon, you have this dynamic force that is actually dancing the world into being. I can’t look at it without feeling uplifted. It just had this incredible ecstatic energy. They don’t seem to display that one anymore.

I think they sold it to buy the famous one.

Oh no. And of course they don’t exhibit the one with the ring of fire, because they had to give it back.

What happened with the statue in Canberra?

[It was sold to the NGA by] an Indian dealer in New York, Subhash Kapoor, who has since gone to jail. He was tried in India for onselling rare artefacts of various kinds, having faked up a whole lot of certificates of provenance. If a dealer does this well it can be very hard to unpick the validity of them. As I recall, this one was looted out of a very small temple in Tamil Nadu. There were several of them made under the Chola dynasty in the 11th and 12th centuries. So, $5.6 million – to my mind, worth every cent, but there was no recompense available to the gallery.

Every time I went to Canberra I’d make a beeline for this statue, like a pilgrimage. Then: gone! So I had to buy one, a copy.

Can you reflect on the connection with your own work and writing? The unleashed creativity, the ecstatic glow, the fertility of destruction…

Yes, I think the best writing aspires to reveal another dimension of the real. In the best sense, not the dark sense. We’ve all had that experience of going to a particular place: nature, or a beautiful house, or seeing a beautiful dress, and feeling this quality that almost can’t be put into words: a kind of transcendence of the mundane. You feel it’s always there, lurking behind appearances. It’s always, as the philosophers say, “immanent”. As I’ve got older I’ve tried more and more to capture that in my writing. I want the reader to get the sense that there are the events happening on the surface, but what I’m hoping is that in the quiet space between the words this other feeling is coming through. Sometimes I capture it and sometimes I don’t, and for some readers it’s there and for some it’s not. I’m not in control of what they see and feel. I can only try to conjure the magic.

The Labyrinth is partly about that sense of reconciling practicalities – the protagonist moves to a new town and has to deal with her son’s actions, but she also reaches beyond, looking for that ancient quality of awe and mystery as she enters the symbolic world of a labyrinth that she builds.

To me the book is about making something and creating a non-religious, secularised space of the sacred, using a pattern that seems to be in our DNA. Labyrinths go back to Neolithic caves, occur in almost every culture. In fact, this one comes to the main character in a dream. In a sense this is a kind of Jungian novel about those deep, collective sources of wisdom and consolation that we draw on intuitively. Jung said the cure for many ills is to build something. And he spoke of the hands having an intelligence that the brain can’t access.

Do you work with your hands?

In another life I’d play an instrument and be a gardener. Writing, it’s a calling, it’s not something you’d do on a rational basis. I do it for myself primarily because if I don’t write every day I become ratty and unbearable. When someone reads fiction they’re the co-creator, and their unconscious meets your unconscious … yours has been shaped by your craft skills, but it’s a speculative enterprise.

We return to the metaphysics of Shiva, the dynamics of combining and recombining.

Exactly, and what Shiva holds in his hand is the drum. The Hindus believe the world is created through vibration, sound. He holds the drum and drums matter into shape and form. And when you’re writing you listen to the sound and rhythm of your own sentences and you try to create a certain music. The unconscious is such a rich repository of everything.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 24, 2021 as "Amanda Lohrey".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road.