Visual history of Yoga

13FR-YOGA__2308205gThe Hindu
February 12, 2015
S. RANGARAJAN

The year-long exhibition mounted at the Sackler Gallery, Washington, offered a peek at the discipline’s multi-faceted cultural dimensions, writes S. Rangarajan.

The year-long yoga exhibition titled ‘Yoga: The Art of Transformation,’ a vibrant visual presentation of the discipline’s multi-faceted culture, came to a successful conclusion.

Organised by the Sackler Gallery (part of the Smithsonian complex) in Washington D.C., the exhibition with 133 objet d’arts of stone and bronze sculptures, richly illustrated manuscripts and court paintings from 25 museums from all the world (including the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum) and private collections in India, Europe and the United States, explored yoga’s goals and means of transforming body and consciousness and its profound philosophy and spiritual commitments.

The exhibition opened the windows to enlighten and emphasise yoga’s crucial position in the Hindu religious psyche as well as its presence in Jain and Buddhist traditions. “Art of Transformation” was a pictorial story on yoga as a vigorous cultural force across a varied and divergent social landscape around the world and how the discipline has become a global phenomenon and a universal household word.

Objects such as a 12-foot scroll of the chakra body and the earliest illustrated Yoga Vasistha (an important Hindu philosophical text) shed light on the central tenets of yogic practices.

A Chola period, an awe-inspiring bronze image of Yoga Narasimha (Tamil Nadu, India –ca.1250, Cleveland Museum of Art) meditating with a yoga paatta (strap), and ten-folios from the first illustrated treatise of yoga postures(1600-1604) outline the path of yoga.

“Fasting Buddha” (Kashmir, India-8th century – Cleveland Museum of Art), an exquisitely carved image in ivory that conveyed the pain and rigour in the Buddha’s search for Enlightenment, and the San Antonio Yogini from the collection of the San Antonio Museum representing the female embodiment of yogic power, were some of the highlights of the exhibition.

Special mention must be made of ‘Vishnu-Vishvarupa’, Jaipur ca.1800-20, a breath-taking work in opaque water colour and gold paper. This work adorns the front cover of the catalogue of the exhibition, prepared by Debra Diamond, Associate Curator of Freer and Sackler Galleries, who was also the curator of the exhibition.

After a survey of yoga with its 3rd Century to 18th Century collections, the exhibition focussed on modern transformations with Swami Vivekananda’s address and participation in the 1893 World Parliament of Religions and his Vedanta philosophy.

The uniqueness of the exhibition was that it was on display in three major U.S. cities – Washington D.C., San Francisco Asian Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum catering to the taste of laymen and scholars.

The exhibition has created an enthusiasm for future learning and appreciation of the Indian art with four courses at universities across the U.S, in under-graduate and graduate levels.

The Sackler Gallery is a friend and patron of Indian art and culture and ‘Yoga: The Art of Transformation’ is in the high tradition of its earlier cultural presentations of India. “Poetry in Colour” unfurled the saga of miniature paintings representing the poetry of Jayadeva in his Gita Govinda. “Splendour in Metal” presented a dynamic view of Chola period bronze works. “Inspiration from the mountains” was the theme of works of art devoted to Himalayan aesthetic adventure. And more recently, “Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur’ presented by the Sackler Gallery in 2008-2009 focussed on a grand-scale paintings of the North Indian royal court.

(The writer is a music and art critic based in Washington D.C.)

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