The Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-daro reminds you why a visit to museums is essential.

Caged behind thick glass, the most famous dancer in the world can easily be missed in the National Museum, Delhi. The Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-daro is that rare artefact that even school children are familiar with, though despite the fact thatour textbooks do little to communicate the wealth of our 5000-year heritage of art. Currently, she resides close to the entrance of the Harappan gallery. You have to be alert to her existence there, amid terracotta animals and potsherds; to rediscover this dark bronze whose image is embedded in our minds.

Most of us have seen her only in a photograph or sketch, therefore the impact of actually beholding her is magnified a million times over. One registers the cruel truth that the dancing girl has no feet. She is small, a little over 10 centimetres tall — the length of a human palm — but she surprises us with the power of great art — the ability to communicate across centuries.

Her long arms and legs and her thin but attractive form set her apart from the voluptuous abundance of the Mother Goddess. She is naked, but a series of bangles - of shell or ivory or thin metal - clothe her left upper arm all the way down to her fingers. A necklace with three pendants bunched together and a few bangles above the elbow and wrist on the right hand display an almost modern sensibility for the asymmetric. Of the many types of jewellery found in the excavations, this is all she wears. A bun of wavy hair slants across the back of her head.

We don't know that this young girl ever danced, we don't know for sure what she represented, yet she is called the Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-daro. Sir John Marshall, the archaeologist who presided over the discovery of the buried city, thought the image of rough workmanship was a caricature that “gives a vivid impression of the young aboriginal nautch girl...”

Thankfully, the label “aboriginal nautch girl”, loaded with connotations from 45 centuries later in time, did not stick. With her full lips, elongated eyes and a chin angled upwards, this girl-eternal radiates tremendous confidence, cockiness even. She has remarkable self-possession considering she is wearing no clothes, her gender clearly marked. States academic Gregory Possehl, “We may not be certain that she was a dancer, but she was good at what she did and she knew it.”

The parted legs, one hand tucked above the hip, the other carried forward in movement, convey dynamic grace. Certainly, Bharatanatyam dancers would recognise the primary position of the right arm akimbo and the swung-forward left arm that might have supplanted a fleeting dola hasta.

Posture perfect

However, the bangles stacked on the left arm would have impeded a full range of dance movements. When one assumes the posture of the girl, toes pointed forward, spine erect, one discovers that the weight of the body rests on the right leg, locking the knee into a slight bend. The partly raised left leg lifts the foot off ground-level and the left arm connects with the left thigh in motion, reinforcing the idea of dance as the sheer joy of bodily movement.

The 4500-year-old dancing girl is missing her feet, and is immobilised behind glass, but that does not prevent her from vaulting into one's heart. Come from the “Mound of the Dead” she speaks eloquently of the undaunted, ever-hopeful human spirit. She reminds us why it is important to visit museums in our country, ignoring their uninviting, dreary methods of display — to experience the impact that a work of art leaves on our senses, to reconnect with that which is already within, to find among all the riches one particular vision of beauty that speaks to us alone.

Tulsi Badrinath's second novel Man of A Thousand Chances is forthcoming from Hachette shortly.