The World's First Exhibition on Yoga in Art (Photos)- page 15 | Photos | Smithsonian
Garbhasana (Womb Posture). This picture is one of the exhibit’s 10 folios from the Bahr al-Hayat, the earliest known treatise to illustrate yoga postures systematically. (Folio from the Ocean of Life (Bahr al-Hayat); India, Allahabad, ca.1600-1604 CE
Opaque watercolor on paper, 22.2 x 13.9 cm
Chester Beatty Library)
Yogic goals (and the techniques of meditation and austerities) first emerged in northern India between the 5th and 3rd century BCE, when self-aware individuals realized that their bodies and minds contained the potential to transcend the suffering of existence. These emaciated renouncers may be Ajivikas, an influential group of early ascetics who were known for their exceptionally intense austerities but left no written texts.

Image and caption courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (India, Jammu and Kashmir, Harwan, 5th century; Terracotta, 40.6 × 33.6 × 4.1 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Cynthia Hazen Polsky)
Since at least the second century, ascetics freelanced as spies for Indic rulers. A fictional yogi-spy—wearing dreadlocks and sitting in a lodge adorned with the weapons of a militant ascetic—appears on a folio from the Hamzanama, a Persian adventure story illustrated for the Mughal emperor Akbar.

Image and caption courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Folio from a Hamzanama (The Adventures of Hamza)
Attributed to Dasavanta and Mithra, ca. 1570
Opaque watercolor, gold and ink on cotton 67.5 x 52.2 cm, 70.8 x 54.9 cm (folio))
We usually think of yogis as peaceful, but many used their yogic powers in very earthly ways. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, bands of armed yogis often battled over bathing rights at sacred rivers.

Image and caption courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (From the Akbarnama, composed by Basawan and painted by Asi
India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1590-5; Opaque watercolor, gold and ink on paper, 38.1 x 22.4 cm
Victoria and Albert Museum)
Literature played a critical role in embedding diverse perceptions of yogis within the popular imagination. The adventures of princes-turned-yogis were a central feature in the allegorical romances composed by Sufi poets between the 14th and 19th centuries.

Image and caption courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (From The Magic Doe Woman (Mrigavati), attributed to Haribans, 1603-4
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 28.3 x 17 cm
Chester Beatty Library, Credit Line)
Dazzling in its jewel-like colors, palpably present yogis and atmospheric landscapes, this opening from the great Gulshan album of the Mughal emperor Jahangir represents Nath, Ramanandi, and Sannyasi yogis as members of an amiable collective.

Image and caption courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1600-1625; Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 53.5 x 40 cm
Staatsbibliothek zu Berline – Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Orientabteilung)
The second page in the opening from the great Gulshan album of the Mughal emperor Jahangir.

Image and caption courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1600-1625; Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 53.5 x 40 cm
Staatsbibliothek zu Berline – Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Orientabteilung)
Yoga transforms body and mind. The negative space cut from a sheet of copper represents an advanced Jain practitioner (siddha) who has achieved disembodied enlightenment.

Image and caption courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Western India, dated 1333; Bronze, 21.9 x 13.1 x 8.9 cm
Freer Gallery of Art)
For tantric yogis, the Hindu deity Bhairava was both transcendent guru and the god they became through initiation and practice. Like Bhairava, they haunted cremation grounds, which provided the ashes they smeared on their bodies and the skull cups that they carried.

Image and caption courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (India, Karnataka, Mysore, 13th century; Chloritic schist, 116.6 x 49.23 cm
The Cleveland Museum of Art: John L. Severance Fund)
For the Indo-Islamic rulers of Bijapur at the turn of the 17th century, yoginis were agents of otherworldly powers who could help them win battles. Renowned as one of India’s greatest court paintings, this elegantly elongated yogini is theatrically backlit and surrounded by hugely blooming flowers.

Image and caption courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (By the Dublin painter; India, Karnataka, Bijapur, ca. 1603-4
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 42 x 32 cm
Chester Beatty Library)
This monumental manuscript folio depicts creation according to the Naths, a sectarian order closely associated with hatha yoga. Creation begins with a formless transcendent Nath (represented by the shimmering gold square on the right) who emanates into increasingly more material yogic beings (center and right).

Image and caption courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Folio 1 from the Nath Charit by Bulaki; India, Rajasthan, Jodhpur, 1823 (Samvat 1880)
Opaque watercolor, gold and tin alloy on paper, 47 x 123 cm
Mehrangarh Museum Trust)
Encounters with western medicine led to new ways of ‘seeing’ yogic physiognomy, as in this textbook illustration that locates the chakras and channels of the subtle body on an anatomical figure.

Image and caption courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Swami Hamsvarupa; Trikutvilas Press, Muzaffarpur, Bihar, India, 1903
Book, 26.2 × 34.5 × 0.4 cm
Wellcome Library, London, Asian Collections)
Mortal and divine masters of yoga realize the equivalence of their bodies with the cosmos.

Image and caption courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (India, Rajasthan, Jaipur, ca. 1800-20; Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 38.5 x 28cm
Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Given by Mrs. Gerald Clark)
Jinas (the great liberated souls of the Jain religious tradition) are invariably represented meditating to convey how they attained omniscience and to provide a model for devotees. Through rigorous symmetry and rhythmically abstracted forms, a 12th century Jina simultaneously embodies the complete cessation of the mind’s fluctuations and alert energy.

Image and caption courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (India, Rajasthan, probably vicinity of Mount Abu, dated 1160; Marble, 59.69 x 48.26 x 21.59 cm
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, The Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund)
When properly placated, fierce Yogini goddesses bestowed worldly powers on tantric yogis and royal devotees. This is one of three life-size yoginis, from a temple that was destroyed at an unknown point in the past, that are reunited in a dramatic installation in the exhibition.

Image and caption courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (India, Tamil Nadu, Kanchipuram, ca. 900-975; Metagabbro, H x W x D: 116 x 76 x 43.2 cm
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Gift of Arthur M. Sackler)
Seated with her legs audaciously akimbo on an owl vehicle, this flying yogini has the weapons and bared teeth of a fierce deity and the voluptuous body of a benign goddess. Magnificently carved, it is the only surviving trace of a temple that would have housed 42, 64, 81 or 108 yoginis of similar size.

Image and caption courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (India, Uttar Pradesh, Kannauj, ca. 1000-1050 CE; Sandstone, 86.4 x 43.8 x 24.8 cm
San Antonio Museum of Art, purchased with the John and Karen McFarlin Fund and Asian Art Challenge Fund)
Chakras are located along the central channel of the body of an adept whose eyes are crossed in inward meditation.

Image and caption courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Folio 4 from the Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati by Bulaki
India, Rajasthan, Jodhpur, dated 1824; Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 122 x 46 cm
Mehrangarh Museum Trust)

The World's First Exhibition on Yoga in Art (Photos)

"Yoga: The Art of Transformation" opens at the Sackler Gallery

In the 17th-century watercolor painting pictured above and featured in "Yoga: The Art of Transformation," an upcoming exhibition at the Sackler Gallery, a man sits on a mat outside a hut, contorted into a fetal position. The picture is one of the exhibit’s 10 folios from the Bahr al-Hayat, the earliest known treatise to illustrate yoga postures systematically.

Today, yoga is practiced by millions, in styles that range from tranquil relaxation poses to intense workouts. But the activity emerged centuries before stretchy yoga pants were invented. Indian spiritual leaders conceived it a means of disciplining the body and mind as early as 500 BCE, and over time Hindu, Buddhist and Jain schools philosophically ordered the practice into its various forms.

"Yoga: The Art of Transformation," the world’s first yogic art exhibition, visually traces yoga’s development and dissemination. In addition to the 10 Bahr al-Hayat folios, which have never been shown in the United States before, the exhibition includes more than 100 temple sculptures, devotional icons, illustrated manuscripts, court paintings, photographs, books and films borrowed from 25 museums and private collections in India, Europe and the United States.

"These works of art allow us to trace, often for the first time, yoga’s meanings across the diverse social landscapes of India," said Debra Diamond, the museum’s curator of South Asian art. "United for the first time, they not only invite aesthetic wonder, but also unlock the past—opening a portal onto yoga’s surprisingly down-to-earth aspects over 2,000 years."

The exhibition opens on October 19 and runs through January 26 next year.

Image courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

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