Saturday, October 26, 2013

Yoga: The Art of Transformation

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through January 26, 2013

Long time readers of this blog can well imagine my delight at seeing three shows at the Sackler in one week.  To walk over to my favorite museum in lovely weather is such a treat, and the shows I went to see were all interesting.  Who could ask for anything more?

The first exhibit I saw was on yoga and its artistic representations through history.  Since I've been practicing yoga since 2006, I was eager to see this show and had been counting down the days to its opening for months.  It was very fortunate that the government shutdown ended just before the opening.  I was wondering, in fact, how much work they would have been able to do on the show, and if it would look thrown together at the last minute, but they must have had this set up weeks ahead of time, as it's quite large and clearly required a vast deal of work to set up.

Yoga has been around, in one form or another, for centuries.  It began in northern India, between the 5th and 3rd centuries BCE and was part of three major religious traditions: Hindu, Jain and Buddhist.  Both men and women practitioners of yoga renounced society and lived in austerity.  There are two concepts that were central to the thinking of people at that time.  One is karma, which is the idea that actions produce results and the other was samsara, which is the idea that humans go through a perpetual cycle of inherently painful lives.  Yogis and yoginis (female yogis) retreated from society in order to escape samsara, which they believed could be accomplished by their austere way of life.  Common people from all three religious traditions established a practice of worshiping these enlightened renouncers.  The first room shows artistic representations of these people, mostly statutes.  They're in quite good condition, minus the occasional hand, of course.

A subset of the yoga of the period was the Tantric tradition.  It involved a set of practices that frankly seemed quite bizarre to me, including haunting (their word) cremation grounds, and carrying skull cups.  I'm afraid this name was a literal description.  Orthodox Hinduism eventually co-opted the Tantric followers; they moderated their practices and became mainstream.

In the section entitled "The Path of Yoga," we see representations of people practicing yoga, meditation or austerity.  I liked the works here; some of them are very colorful, despite their age.  Some lovely landscapes are also included.  Yogis were travelers, and as such, became quite useful to the ruling elites as covert agents.  Yogi spies - who knew?

I'm always interested to see how various cultures treated women, and yoginis were just as important as yogis.  They were viewed as very powerful and possessed of magical powers.  Sometimes, they were depicted as erotic princesses, but they were also valued for their fighting skills.  I got no sense from this show that they were second class citizens at all.

At this point, one might think the show ends.  I went back out to the main atrium and was on my way back to work, when I happened to look across the space and see another room, painted a different color.  I glanced in and realized it was another part of the yoga show.  Much as it pains me to criticize the Sackler, they might have either used the same paint color, or put up a sign indicating that the show continued.

The other part of the show involved European depictions of yoga, beginning in the 1800s.  As you might expect, they had no real understanding of yoga, and why people who practiced it lived as they did.  The popular press latched on to the aspects of the practice that could be best exploited in the West, and never bothered to explain why these wild "fakirs" practiced yoga.  The charlatan with matted hair was a common depiction, in the newspapers, in books and magazines and in the movies.  A Thomas Edison film, "The Hindoo Fakir" is playing in the room.  It's as stereotypical as you think it's going to be.

In the late 19th century, yoga began to be marketed in the West for its healthful properties, and there were scientific studies done to show that the practice wasn't merely for con men.   The modern practice of yoga comes from the 1896 publication, Raja Yoga by Swami Vivekehanda.  This publication stressed yoga as as spiritual system and a source of pride for Indians.  Another video shows yogis in various asanas (postures) - not looking like wild snake charmers at all.

A side note: at the back of this room, I noticed a door leading to the African Art Museum.  I didn't realize the two were connected, except through the Ripley.  Truly, you learn something new every day!

Verdict: If you have any interest in yoga or Indian culture or history, don't miss this very large show.  If you only have a lunch hour, you'll need to move quickly, or take two trips.  The Sackler has re-opened with a bang.

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