Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 11, 2014
Debra Diamond, ed. Yoga: The Art of Transformation Exh. cat. Washington, DC: Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2014. 360 pp.; 250 ills. Cloth $55.00 (9781588344595)
Exhibition schedule: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC, October 19, 2013–January 26, 2014; Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco, February 22–May 25, 2014; Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, June 22–September 7, 2014
India, Tamil Nadu, Kanchipuram or Kaveripakkam. Yogini (ca. 900–975). Metagabbro. 116 x 76 x 43.2 cm. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.905.

Yoga, and the variety of practices that can be subsumed under that heading, is identifiable in sculptures, paintings, photographs, and films representing virtually every region of the Indian subcontinent over the course of more than three millennia—from third-century depictions of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain ascetics, to the transgressive rituals of medieval yoginis, to the recognizable asanas practiced today in yoga studios worldwide. Deities engaged in yogic practice and instruction populate the walls of temples in Bengal in the east, Rajasthan in the west, Uttar Pradesh in India’s north, and Tamil Nadu in the south. Revered (and feared) human practitioners of specific yogic traditions appear throughout manuscripts commissioned by Hindu and Muslim rulers from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. The relative ease with which yogic practices and philosophies were adapted across sectarian divides and modified by each new generation has enabled a record of yoga’s visual culture that nearly parallels the history of Indian art itself. In Yoga: The Art of Transformation, curator Debra Diamond and her collaborators narrowed this expansive field to 143 objects. Drawn from more than twenty-five collections, the exhibition was the first to examine visualizations of yogic practices, philosophies, and personae across the span of history and geography described above.1 Throughout its five sections, which included twenty-six subsections that focused on representations of yoga in specific times and places, this ambitious survey constructed a pictorial history of yoga linked by representations of subtle, anatomical, and politicized yogic bodies.

Within the exhibition, several installations illuminated deep affinities between figures seldom displayed together. Among the most remarkable was an ensemble of three tenth-century granite yoginis from a single temple in Tamil Nadu reunited from their locations in three separate museum collections. (These three sculptures are from the collections of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Minneapolis Institute of Arts. For more on their history, see Padma Kaimal, Scattered Goddesses: Travels with the Yoginis, Ann Arbor: Association for Asian Studies, 2012.) Elevated and lit to almost tenebristic effect, the low relief of their unbound hair against each stone backdrop and their detailed facial tattoos and fangs became starkly apparent. Wall labels drew attention to these features, as well as the fanged snarls and funerary accoutrements of two nearby sculptures of Shiva’s Bhairava form: an eleventh-century figure from Tamil Nadu and an intricately carved thirteenth-century figure from Karnataka. The ferocity of their features contrasted sharply with the series of paintings of serene siddhas (perfected beings) that unfolded in the opposite direction from the exhibition’s entrance. Emerging from a formless Absolute rendered in opaque watercolor and gold, a siddha comes to sit upon a silvery cosmic ocean. In subsequent folios, additional siddhas floating on this ocean hold forth on metaphysical topics with Shiva himself.

These two sets of works established many of the recurring themes and subtle tensions that structured the first part of the exhibition, “The Path of Yoga.” Installed in a single gallery in San Francisco, it was the most chronologically and conceptually wide-ranging of the exhibition’s five parts. While the yoginis, siddhas, and manifestations of Shiva and Vishnu on the outer walls of the gallery presented viewers with some of the most prominent deities and teachers from Hindu yogic traditions, an inner gallery space (formed by a broken ellipse of temporary walls) explored yoga’s links to Buddhist and Jain practices. Sections devoted to meditation, asanas, and the performance of austerities also lined this inner space. Through this oscillation between inner and outer spaces, viewers were primed to seek visual and conceptual links between representations of the yogic body separated by large geographic and chronological distances.

In the second gallery, several series of paintings and photographs chronicled the elevation of yogis’ status as brokers of earthly power at Indian courts from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries and their subsequent denigration in publications produced for European and American audiences. Here, works were arranged in approximate chronological order along the gallery’s walls, with a small selection of manuscripts placed on pedestals under vitrines throughout the center of the room. Sections devoted to yogis’ pilgrimages and to the communal spaces of the ashram (hermitage) and math (monastery) offered sumptuous renditions of yogis’ peaceful, lush retreats commissioned by the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605) and later Rajput rulers. This section included another noteworthy reunion of components of a single work now housed in separate collections: three folios from the earliest known series of paintings illustrating the Kedara Kalpa, a Sanskrit text describing the pilgrimage through the region around Mount Kailash. (A fourth folio was included in the installation at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, while only two of the folios were on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art.) Rendered in the cool, pastel palette associated with the Pahari kingdom of Kangra, they convey the purifying cold of the streams and glacial landforms surrounding Mount Kailash. Yogis’ evocative power as figures who lived beyond the confines of society is explored through several series of paintings of ragamalas (collections of Indian musical modes) and through portrayals of sages (and tricksters masquerading as such) in illustrations of Sanskrit and Persian epics. These portrayals of yogis’ piety and power underscore the allure that they held for courtly patrons, serving as reminders of the possibility of spiritual transcendence.

At the far end of the gallery, paintings gave way to prints, photographic cartes de visite, and even a clay figurine of a fakir on a bed of nails created in the nineteenth century for British East India Company officials and an emerging class of consumers in the metropole. Overall, the abundance of paintings and photographs on display in this gallery presented viewers with an almost overwhelming amount of detail to take in—perhaps too much for a single visit. Even so, magnifying glasses and seats, equipped with interactive displays highlighting specific paintings and related ragas, encouraged and rewarded in-depth examination of individual works.

The second gallery culminated in a series of lithographic posters advertising the feats of magicians, yoginis, and fakirs performing outside of India, hinting at the exhibition’s continuation in a separate gallery space dedicated to yoga’s rehabilitation for more global audiences in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Materials promoting Howard Thurston, the Ohio native who popularized the Indian rope trick, and a loop of the Edison Manufacturing Company’s film Hindoo Fakir (1902) also underscore the United States’s role as both philosophical rival and testing ground for new forms of yoga during this time. While the visions of yogic power presented in these materials emphasized yoga’s potential to grant practitioners supernatural powers, new scientific developments and the aspirations of Western spiritual movements provided reformers such as Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) with the framework for a revitalized yogic tradition. This tradition, with its emphasis on physical fitness, was explored in the final section of the exhibition, in which scenes from a 1938 film of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, often called the father of modern yoga, demonstrating a sequence of asanas filled an entire wall. The exhibition concluded with numerous manuals, opened to display diagrams and photographs that chart links between the subtle and anatomical bodies.

The exhibition catalogue expands upon these sections and subsections with essays by more than a dozen leading scholars of South Asian art, religion, and sociology. In the place of individual catalogue entries, longer essays treat the groups of objects presented as thematic units within the exhibition. Rich in references that document the publication and exhibition histories of specific works, these essays reveal the novelty of many of the comparisons that this exhibition establishes, suggesting points of departure for further investigations of yogic practices (and practitioners) as they appear in specific visual contexts. Several extensive essays underscore the exhibition’s interdisciplinary roots. David Gordon White situates the evolution of “yoga,” “yogis,” and “yoginis” within the body of Indic scriptures addressing consciousness-raising practices, as well as European encounters with these texts. Carl W. Ernst traces Muslim interest in yogic practices, which were easily assimilated into Islamic conceptions of religion’s symbolic nature and the mystical practices of Sufi orders in India. In “Yogis in Mughal India,” James Mallinson draws upon Mughal paintings of yogis to explore the origins and shifting identities of two of India’s most prominent ascetic orders. (An expanded version of the text, with additional references and illustrations, can be found at Tamara L. Sears examines networks of landscapes and architectural contexts in which yogic practice could confer divinity upon human aspirants, and essays by Joseph S. Alter and Mark Singleton analyze the discourses surrounding physical culture and spirituality that fueled yoga’s reinvention and systemic dissemination in the twentieth century. It should be noted as well that a symposium, held at the Freer Gallery of Art to coincide with the exhibition, drew still more scholars into the rapidly expanding conversation about yoga’s history and visual culture.

The extraordinary array of objects and research represented in Yoga: The Art of Transformation makes a substantial contribution to the study of South Asia’s art history. Anchored by its focus on embodied, manifest forms of yogic knowledge and practice, it limns the depths and limits of representation itself in a variety of specific historical and aesthetic contexts.

Stephanie E. Rozman
PhD candidate, Department of Art History, University of Minnesota

1 Portions of the exhibition built on Diamond’s earlier explorations of the relationship between yoga and royal power in the Rajput kingdom of Marwar during the nineteenth century. See Debra Diamond, ed., Gardens and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur (Washington, DC: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 2008). More recently, The Body in Indian Art (Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, October 5, 2013–January 5, 2014; National Museum of India, March 14–June 7, 2014), curated by Naman P. Ahuja, included a section addressing the yogic/ascetic body.

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