Before yoga became the chosen fitness pastime of suburban yuppies, it was a driving cultural force, shaping literature, religion, philosophy and other facets of society, first in India, and then the rest of the world.
A new exhibit at the Smithsonian Arthur M. Sackler Gallery explores how yoga practice and culture manifested itself in visual artifacts – sculpture, paintings, illustrated manuscripts, photography and film – over the last 2,000 years. Called "Yoga: The Art of Transformation," the exhibit is the first ever to comprehensively examine yoga-influenced visual art.
"There hasn't been much work done on this visual culture and our understanding of yoga's manifestation in history is also quite spotty," explains exhibit curator Debra Diamond. "It's like a whole other archive that hadn't been used before."
The exhibit tracks the way yoga practices and teachings were disseminated throughout the Indian subcontinent. "We know that at least as early as the 5th century B.C. that there's this huge shift in Indian soteriological thought," Diamond says. "There's this notion that we, ourselves – through our own bodies and minds – have the power to get out of this horrible cycle of death-rebirth."
"Yoga: The Art of Transformation" looks not only how the lifestyles of yoga practitioners have been depicted in Indian art, but also how they became embedded in Indian culture. "For me [it] is a way of thinking through some of the issues surrounding yoga in the United States today – how yoga is getting embedded into our culture," Diamond says.
Many of the pieces, 130 in all, celebrate yoga culture – from a spectacular 12th century sculpture depicting the attainment of spiritual enlightenment to Mughal empire court paintings that have rulers rubbing shoulders with ascetic sages.
However, the exhibit also uncovers a dark side to how yoga inhabited the Indian imagination. "There's definitely always a strand of evil, sinister yogis, at least in the imagination," Diamond says. This includes paintings and illustrations of fictional yogis who doubled as spies, incinerated cities and engaged in other forms of taboo acts.
"How can you show that kind of thing? Obviously, their scariness wouldn't show if they were sculpted in the context of a temple. You have the trope of the sinister yogi in popular stories for two millennium," Diamond says.
Made in about 1570, "Misbah the Grocer Brings the Spy Parran to his House" (left) depicts a scene from the Persian story "Hamzamonia" in which a dread-locked ascetic serves as a spy for an Indic ruler. As the exhibit puts it, "From as early as the 2nd century BCE, ascetics who wandered over vast territories and were welcomed within many communities were recognized as excellent cover agents."
Other works featured in the gallery show yogis depicted as power-hungry wizards or transgressive breakers of social codes.
The suspicion with how yogis were sometimes portrayed only grew with the British colonization of India in 1800s, which came as technology made such images easier to reproduce and disseminate throughout the Western world.
"[Yogis] became associated with this idea of a decadent weird religious tradition," Diamond says. "They were kind of naked. They smoked dope. They had long hair and they were a challenge to the British."
British photographers pulled yogis off the street – many of them in dire poverty as the Empire had taken away their traditional means of making a livelihood – and brought them into their studio to produce pictures that would be sold around the world. The make-up and props used, as in the "Group of Yogis," pictured above, would have nothing to do with yoga practice but rather would further exoticize Indian culture for Western viewers.
"At this point yoga – it's particularly hatha yoga, the bodily based practice yoga –gradually becomes understood as the epitome or the nadir or Indian civilization. They're totally reviled," Diamond says.
This notion trickled down to the entertainment world in Europe and America, particularly in magic shows – "cheap hollow magic acts," Diamond calls them – that had caricatures of yogis charming snakes and levitating mid-air. "This is a total fantasy that yogis are magicians, that they're doing tricks," Diamond says.
"Yoga: The Art of Transformation" ends with the global renaissance that yoga sees in the 20th century, as the practice of yoga became more associated with physical strength.
To kick off the exhibit, the Sackler Gallery will be hosting a number of events to celebrate yoga, including yoga classes, musical performances and a lamp lighting ceremony. It will be on view at the Sackler until Jan. 26, 2014, and then will travel to the San Francisco Asian Art Museum and later the Cleveland Museum of Art.