'Art & Soul
Yoga, then and now
A recent exhibition reminds one that there is far more to yoga and to a yogi than the images that we carry in our minds

He donned the sandals, the girdle and patched cloak.
His locks became matted. He assumed the discus,
the yogi’s earrings, the necklace for telling his prayers,
the staff, the begging bowl, and the lion-skin.
He wore the clothes of a yogi, the basil beads,
took up the arm-rest and the trident,
and rubbed his body all over with ashes.
He blew the horn-whistle and went on the path,
reciting the divinely beautiful one's name as his support.
He took the ascetic's viol in his hand,
and applied his mind to the practices of solitude.

                                                                             — From the Mrigavata by Qutban. ca. 1503

Things had been building up towards this for sometime but I was not quite prepared for what I saw as I entered the yoga exhibition at the Sackler/Freer Gallery in Washington, just two short weeks ago. One descended to the exhibition galleries which are in the basement — ‘descent’ is not a good word here, for the only feeling in the show as one proceeded was that of an ‘ascent’— and the very first thing that greeted the eyes made you stop: on the glistening parquet floor, projected from virtually invisible lamps above, were shining perfectly rounded circles of light, at the heart of each the diagrammatic image of a chakra.

A general view of the exhibition galleries
A general view of the exhibition galleries. Yoga: the Art of Transformation show Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington DC

The subtle body, one instantly thought. One could not see all of the circles at once and these kept appearing — revealing themselves as it were — as one took one step after another. It was like a drama unfolding. Adding to that — again something that one saw only in parts as one kept going down — was another vision: on a long horizontal ‘doorway’ lintel were on view, tier upon tier, rows of heads, all parts of an image of the great Vishwarupa that Vishnu-Krishna allowed Arjuna the privilege of seeing on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The rest of that great image was nowhere in sight yet. But one knew that it would be completed inside. Much in the same strain was going to follow.

Yogis and other ascetics
Yogis and other ascetics. Mughal, first quarter of the 17th century. The Gulshan Album; Staatsbibliothek, Berlin

"Yoga, The Art of Transformation" is how the exhibition is named, put together with great feeling and ability by Debra Diamond and her team. The imaginatively produced catalogue, she has edited, has essays, apart from her own, by different experts: David Gordon White, Tamara Sears, Carl Ernst, James Mallinson, Joseph Alter, Mark Singleton, among them. They treat of themes like ‘From Guru to God’, ‘Muslim Interpreters of Yoga’, ‘Yogis in Mughal India’, ‘Yoga in Transformation’, and then move on — this will come as a surprise to many — to ‘Globalised Modern Yoga’, centring upon yoga, breath control, body-building, wrestling, and modern-day yogic practices with their emphasis on human wealth on the one hand and, frankly, commerce on the other. But the entire effort — the exhibition, the essays — is all aimed at ‘inaugurating a field of scholarly inquiry’, as the Director, Julian Raby, says in the opening words. The intention, he adds, is to "look beyond such calcified categories as wonder and resonance, high art and popular culture, indigenous and exogenous, authentic and exploited, and to consider how yoga unfolded in history". In this, the endeavour succeeds: eminently.

What truly takes one’s breath away is the range of objects of which the show is built. There they are: massive yet light-framed yoginis seated in mysterious glory; the man-lion god, Narasimha, striking a majestic yogic stance, limitless energy brought under complete control; the emaciated figure of the Buddha, flesh barely stretched over bones; a great Guru leaning back and instructing disciples, sitting on a Khajuraho wall; yogis and cats in yogic asanas standing on the banks of the Ganga as she descends; the ineffable Jina, completely motionless, inwardly turned.

Jina, seated in meditation
Jina, seated in meditation. Rajasthan, probably Mt Abu; dated Samvat 1217=1160 CE. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond

One moves in hushed silence from one object to the next, taking in to the extent that one can, the effulgence that belongs to these great works, sculpted by unknown hands, but still capable of speaking to us, in limpid manner, across centuries of time. Equally arresting in the show is the body of paintings assembled here, a large number of them seen before but not necessarily in this light, and others pulled out of obscure, forgotten corners. Here, Shiva, five-faced, spares a glance for his devotees in Mandi; the emperor Jahangir sits talking to Gosain Jadrup, seeking enlightenment; ashen-bodied ascetics rest beneath a tree under the watchful eyes of a cat and its companions in a Gulshan album page; Misbah the Grocer brings the spy Parran to his house in the Hamza-nama; the goddess Bhairavi gives darshan to a devotee — or is it Shiva in the painter Payag’s eyes? — on the cremation ground; five sadhakas circumambulate a rock and step across the moon in the icy terrain of the Kedara mountains; kings bring offerings to yogis, deities pay homage to sages, raginis sit in meditation, and in front of one’s eyes, the material world begins to form from nothingness. It is a magical world that opens up: subtle and mysterious and almost beyond understanding.

As one moves — along, through, into — the images on view in this exhibition, one is reminded, effortlessly one might add, that there is far more to yoga and to a yogi than the image of it that we carry in our minds: the graphic image that Qutban evokes in his Mrigavat, for instance: not unlike that of Ranjha who had taken ‘jog’ for the love of his beloved in Waris Shah’s enduring Punjabi classic, the Heer. That there are, in today’s world, practitioners of yoga, who appear and act differently one sees in that telling photograph in the show, ‘Yoga on the National Mall in Washington DC’, taken in May 2013, in which hundreds of young men and women are seen occupying this public space, doing exercises with a view to stretching their bodies and in the hope of stretching their minds. But that, precisely perhaps, is one of the points made in this show: not only the art of transformation, but Transformation.