How did I miss this! Debra Diamond, curator of the “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” exhibit at the Freer-Sackler Gallery, spoke before the Yoga Alliance Conference on “The Business of Yoga” in mid-2013. It took place before the exhibit opened. Debra presented the broad brush strokes of the exhibit ,and the rush of joy and comprehension that came from pulling together the diverse parts of the exhibit and laying out stories that told of the emergence and transformation of yoga. It’s 40 minutes long and has a few slides from the exhibit to illustrate her points. She did a great job of underscoring the messages that they want to transmit. YA has an article on her presentation.
I remind all visitors to this blog that there is only one week left to see the exhibit before it decamps for extended visits to San Francisco and Cleveland, and then never more to be seen. I hope that any self-respecting DC yogi has made time to see the exhibit.
Holland Cotter, the New York Times staff art critic, published an article about the “Yoga – The Art of Transformation” exhibit at the Sackler Gallery on the DC Mall (only until January 26). He liked it:
NYTimes.comEons Before the Yoga Mat Became Trendy
The fact is, yoga was always rational, and more so in its old, extremist forms than in its present domesticated version. How else would you characterize a spiritual discipline that directly and boldly addressed life’s most intractable problem, the persistence of suffering, and took practical, but radical steps to do something about it? To alter the rules of the existential game, it redefined the possible. What’s great about the Sackler show, apart from the pleasures of its images, is that it not only lets us see the history of that practice in action, but understand how radical it was — and is — and take that seriously.
Cotter has a good eye for revealing details and incarnate contradictions, which he sprinkles throughout his article. This was not a fly-by snapshot that he fit in between New York galleries and major artists: he saw the art and let it affect him.
There was so much information saturating us during the yoga symposium that I’ve barely had an opportunity to review my notes and impressions. One of the things that came up was that several people noticed that many of the Indian temples showed figures of yoginis (female demi-gods, not the current use as female yogis) using yoga straps (yogapatta) to bind their legs in cross-legged position, leaving their knees raised off the ground. I did a quick search through the PDFs of the Yoga: The Art of Transformation catalog (page 146 for one reference) and found at least three illustrations that demonstrated using a strap to hold a seated posture:
The Freer-Sackler Gallery has put up a special page for the extraordinary catalog that they produced for the “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” exhibit currently showing in Washington, DC, through January 25, 2014. As I mentioned before, this book is a must-have for anyone seriously interested in the history and evolution of yoga into a worldwide phenomenon. I had been unable to find a dedicated page on the site before today so it must have gone up yesterday or early today.
In an exceptional gesture, the Gallery is making a substantial part of the catalog available in PDF format. The Gallery is in effect foregoing catalog sales in order to promote wider availability and access. My judgment would be to buy the book as well as getting the PDFs: Continue reading Art of Yoga Exhibit catalog now available online→
Hidden away in the Freer-Sackler Gallery website is the following jewel, combining photography, historical watercolor paintings, and archival research:
Yogic Identities: Tradition and Transformation by James Mallinson:
The earliest textual descriptions of yogic techniques date to the last few centuries BCE and show their practitioners to have been ascetics who had turned their backs on ordinary society. These renouncers have been considered practitioners of yoga par excellence throughout Indian history. While ascetics, including some seated in meditative yoga postures, have been represented in Indian statuary since that early period, the first detailed depictions of Indian ascetics are not found until circa 1560 in paintings produced under the patronage of Mughal Emperor Akbar (reigned 1556–1605) and his successors. These wonderfully naturalistic and precise images illuminate not only Mughal manuscripts and albums but also our understanding of the history of yogis and their sects. Scholars have argued for these paintings’ value as historical documents; their usefulness in establishing the history of Indian ascetic orders bears this out. The consistency of their depictions and the astonishing detail they reveal allow us to flesh out—and, sometimes, rewrite—the incomplete and partisan history that can be surmised from Sanskrit and vernacular texts, travelers’ reports, hagiography, and ethnography.
I went down to the Yoga: The Art of Transformation today and sat through the first day of the Yoga and Visual Culture: An Interdisciplinary Symposium. It was overwhelming to absorb the depth and sway of the panels. I also made a fast run through the exhibit at lunch hour, and after the panels were over went back for a second take. Again, just too much to take in during a visit of a few hours. Stunning, jaw-dropping, eye-opening, compelling—I am running out of superlatives.
I bought the catalog, 328 pages of color reproductions of the exhibit items, additional graphic material (200 color and black-and-white illustrations) and interpretative framework to fill the eyes, mind and soul. I am tempted to say that the book is better than the exhibit, but that would be wrong, because they inhabit different realms. The catalog can swing wide with its full-page color reproductions and authoritative essays, but the exhibit has a physicality, a presence, a gravity that leaves an impression on my senses .
Mishra is useful because he is not talking in the “Yoga in America” context, which distorts the fundamental question of what is Hinduism by inserting the issue of American appropriation of yoga? He actually addresses current affairs in India, nationalistic Hinduism, caste and class, religion and race. He is a shrewd, articulate decryptographer that deciphers the cultural and social codes that shroud the historical roots of Hinduism’s emergence. He sees it as a political manifestation. He states: Continue reading Understanding the invention of Hindu→
I sit down to write something in the blog, and it’s as if my brain shuts down. I tell myself that “it” is not coming so I might as well do something else. My mind starts going off on tangents, ably assisted by the “ropes and ladders” of the Internet (e-mail, feedreader, tweeter, eMusic). If I’m not careful, I will let the whole evening go by without getting anything constructive out of the time spent in front of the computer.