The Sackler's "Garden and Cosmos" exhibit features a series of paintings exhumed from the darkness of 17th century (and later) palaces in the Indian state of Marwar-Jodhpur. The kings of Marwar, known as Rajputs, were a hardy and ferocious tribe of warriors and traders. They were also art lovers and yogis.
I dropped by the Sackler and looked at the paintings. The Washington Post did a brilliant review of the exhibit when it first opened, focusing on the novelty of art that depicted "lust" and "asceticism" side-by-side.
To someone familiar with Rajasthani culture, that combination is no novelty. Rajputs were convinced of the dual nature of just about everything.
Nowhere is this belief more obvious than in the "yoga" paintings. Most of the yoga-themed paintings in the exhibit were made during the reign of Raja Man Singh, one of the more spiritually-inclined Rajput rulers. Like all the paintings in the exhibit, these ones are artistically lovely, with near-microscopic accents, bright saffron and green colors, and elaborate gold leaf patterns. But they also make a spiritual point.
Yoga poses have organic names; tree, mountain, dolphin, dog. In "The Equivalence of Self and Universe" (above), a great yogi is depicted as having "become one" with the universe. In exquisite detail, the painter shows tiny mountains in the yogi's ears and palace walls in his feet. By practicing yoga, the yogi has absorbed the universe into himself.
The paintings suggest yoga's intentions are at heart transformative, not imitative. They suggest that a person doing the "tree pose" isn't just trying to show a tree, but rather finding the tree within himself. It all seems mind-bendingly complex, but the interesting thing about these paintings is that they make perfect, simple sense.
Catch more insights into the Rajputs in the "Garden and Cosmos" exhibit, at the Sackler until January 4, 2009.
(Image courtesy of Mehrangarh Museum Trust and the Sackler Gallery of Art)