Shutdown over, Smithsonian to breathe again with yoga exhibition

Exhibits include incredibly rare, strikingly beautiful artifacts.

By Deepak Chitnis

Dr. Debra Diamond, Curator of the exhibition. [Photo by Deepak Chitnis.]
WASHINGTON, DC: The Smithsonian Institute will finally open its yoga-themed exhibition this Saturday, October 26, at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC.

The exhibition – entitled “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” – features numerous pieces of art from India and neighboring regions. These pieces range from books to paintings, sculptures to posters, and even some films. The over 130 pieces of art, which were collected from 25 museums and private collections all over the world, explore the 2,000 year-old heritage of yoga tradition.

“[We want to] shed new light on yoga’s profound meaning and hidden histories,” said Dr. Julian Raby, the Director of the Sackler and Freer Galleries of Art, in the opening remarks at the preview of the exhibition, Tuesday. “The exhibition examines, for the first time, the spectacular [but], until now, largely ignored archive that is India’s extraordinary collection of yoga-related art.”

He added: “[It] looks specifically at how knowledge of yoga was interpreted – or perhaps I should say misinterpreted – by European imaginations over the course of four centuries.”

Raby then ceded the floor to Dr. Debra Diamond, the Associate Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art for the Sackler Gallery, and the person who, according to Raby, is the “star” behind the yoga exhibition.

“I’m no star; there are [over] 130 stars, and they’re all in the galleries,” said Diamond as she reached the podium, pointing behind herself to the first room housing the exhibition’s priceless artifacts.

Diamond recounted how her awe of yoga and its related artworks first came to her in 1995, while she was writing her dissertation at Columbia University. In 2009, shortly after acting as the curator for a Smithsonian exhibition entitled “Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur,” she began concentrating her efforts towards making a yoga exhibition a reality.

One of the many ancient yoga-themed pieces of art being featured at the Sackler Gallery. [Photo by Deepak Chitnis.]
“I proposed an exhibition that would look at the larger history of visual culture of yoga,” said Diamond, “Not only what had happened in Jodhpur in the early 19th century, but what had transpired over the course of time. [I wanted to examine] what yoga concepts, identities, profound thoughts, surprising stories emerged from the visual record, [so that] we could learn more about yoga, in history and culture, from art.”

Diamond recounted that the support she received for such an undertaking, both in the US and abroad, was overwhelming, and gave her the confidence and ability to obtain some incredibly rare and strikingly beautiful artifacts to include in the exhibition.

“We were really lucky [that] our lenders were so generous. They have given us some of the most beautiful pieces of Indian art.”

And beautiful they are. One of the centerpieces of the exhibitions – in fact, it’s the very first thing you will see as you enter the hall – is one of the only known sculptures that exists of a yogi who is identified by name. It hails from the eleventh century; the majority of the pieces being displayed come from the 8th-18th century, while the oldest dates back to the second century and the youngest from the early 1900s.

Other pieces include work created by Sufi and Sikh artists, such as a beautifully intricate painting entitled “Battle at Thaneshwar” that was created under the Mughal Empire’s rule of India. There is also Buddhist art, such as a small bust of the Buddha’s dilapidated face while he was undergoing an extreme fast before reaching enlightenment.

Yoga: The Art of Transformation” will be open to the public until January 26, 2014.

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