He donned the sandals,
the girdle and patched cloak.
— From the Mrigavata by
Qutban. ca. 1503
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.
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.
"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.
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.