Narasimha, the mighty God Vishnu in his half-man, half-lion avatar , sits with his front arms relaxed in meditation, his rear arms bearing the chakra and conch, now missing. Around his tautly crossed legs one is amazed to find a yogapatta, or yoga strap!
For many contemporary practitioners of yoga who consider the strap a part of their daily routine in a studio, this brilliantly executed Chola bronze is an eye-opener. It shows that not only did yoga originate in India, it goes all the way back to the Hindu gods.
Yoga Narasimha is just one of hundreds of artifacts gathered in Yoga: The Art of Transformation at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian’s Asian section in Washington DC. In fact, this is the first major exhibition in the US to showcase yoga’s visual aspects through 133 paintings, sculptures and images from 25 museums and private collections across India, Europe and the US.
As Debra Diamond, show curator and Associate Curator of South and Southeast Asian art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, points out, “Created over some two millennia in diverse religious and secular contexts, the archive opens windows into yoga’s centrality within Indian culture and religion, its philosophical depth, its multiple political and historical expressions, and its trans-sectarian and transnational transformations.”
For most Americans and many Indians, this is a first in-depth look at yoga’s past and the realisation that what many take for granted as an exercise routine is in reality an ancient truth that can be traced back to Hindu, Jain, Buddhist as well as Sufi traditions. Texts from different eras show the role yogis played as a cultural force, and paintings and sculpture bring these tales to life.The catalogue has essays by noted scholars on topics ranging from Yogis in Mughal India to Globalised Modern Yoga.
The exhibit emphasises the role of ancient yogis in spreading the tradition of yoga. The very first gallery showcases the divine and human teachers of yoga. A marble sculpture of a sublime Jina from Rajasthan, 1160, highlights the power of meditation. There are life-size sculptures of three fierce tantricyoginis from a South Indian temple which was destroyed in the past. The three have been reunited in DC.
The path of yoga is shown through manifestations of Shiva, Nath Siddhas, Jain and Buddhist yogis. There are many powerful images: a sculpture of Shiva Bhairava (Mysore, 13 century) the Guru of Tantric Yogis; or Vishnu Vishvarupa (Rajasthan) a breathtaking watercolour showing the cosmos within Vishnu’s body. Other galleries highlight yoga in religious texts, paintings and manuscripts from Hindu and Islamic courts, such as the Mughal Albums and the Ragamala paintings.
Another gallery explores Yoga in the Transnational Imagination (1850-1940) when the British eye vilified yogis in colonial photography and paintings. There are stereotypical images of fakers and magic, of Hindu fakirs lying on a bed of nails. There is Thomas Edison’s Hindoo Fakir , the first movie of an Indian subject, and has the infamous rope trick.
The last gallery revolves around the yoga renaissance of the late 19 and early 20 centuries with yoga regarded as a nonsectarian practice for health and spiritual well-being. Here you have books and images of Swami Vivekananda, who brought a philosophical yoga to the US. Visitors can also catch the earliest film of Krishnamacharya and his student B.K.S. Iyengar showing postures, many of which are the basis of today’s yoga.
According to Diamond, the exhibition is only the beginning: four courses, in universities across the US, will offer undergraduate and graduate courses in the visual culture of yoga: “It’s a new field and we happily anticipate many new discoveries about yoga’s rich meanings and histories,” she says.
Diamond, also a yoga practitioner, says she approached the project as an art historian — “an approach that lets the eye-popping aesthetic power of works by great artists reveal yoga’s history and depths”.
Indeed, the works of art on display are breathtaking, some so small and intricate that you have to examine them with a magnifying glass. After this magnificent exhibition, few will be able to think of yoga again as just an ubiquitous form of physical exercise, without remembering its glorious past, its gods and spiritual masters.