Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Under the Spell of Yoga

The exhibition, "Yoga: The Art of Transformation," left the Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, DC last month and is now at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco until May 18. You can preview the exhibition with the very short introductory clip below.

The exhibition is all about the visual culture of yoga and the different meanings of yoga to both practitioners and to those who interact with them, according to the Sackler curator.

If you cannot visit the museum, you might read William Dalrymple's excellent review in The New York Review of Books called, "Under the Spell of Yoga."  Darlymple has written a number of books about India and Indic religions. I especially enjoyed his book, Nine Lives, In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. His chapter about a Jain nun provides a great introduction to Jainism.

Darylymple explains how yogic art developed. Before 1600, most Indian art reflected the power of the monarch.  It served as a kind of "dynastic propaganda."  But that changed after 1600 when a young Hindu prodigy began painting "portraits of holy men performing yogic asanas or exercises aimed to focus the mind and achieve spiritual liberation and transcendence." 

The yogic tradition goes back more than two thousand years. Archaeologists have dug up seals from the Indus River Valley civilization that some scholars believe show a figure practicing some kind of meditation.  By the 3rd and 5th centuries, Darylmple notes, "yogic techniques and goals spread so as to become practiced across northern India and were eventually codified in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali that date from the fourth century AD."

This history of yoga is part of what makes Darylmple's review so interesting. He helps put the exhibition in context. So even if you plan to see the exhibit, you might want to read this essay.

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