A Yoga Story: American museum readies for show

New Delhi: Now a rage globally, it may come as a surprise that Yoga was once despised as superstition in the 19th century. Interesting nuggets like these describing the evolution of the discipline in India told through ancient sculptures, paintings, photos, books and films are soon going to be up for show in Washington.

"Yoga: The Art of Transformation" the first major exhibition devoted to the art of yoga opens at the Arthur M Sackler Gallery, which is commemorating its 25th anniversary.

The gallery along with the older Freer Gallery located on the National Mall in Washington is part of the Smithsonian Museum.

Among the exhibits that will be up for display from October 19 this year are a set of 10 folios from the first illustrated sequence of yoga postures, created for Prince Salim who went on to become Mughal emperor Jahangir.

"Although the postures and practices described and illustrated in Bahral-Hayat manuscript pre-date its production in 1602, we read of them (and see them) for the first time in this manuscript," Debra Diamond, Associate curator South and Southeast Asian Art at Arthur M Sackler Gallery Freer Gallery of Art told PTI over email.

Debra who had curated a critically acclaimed exhibition of royal paintings from Jodhpur in 2008 at the gallery says the manuscript was "so important" that three scholars worked on it simultaneously.

"Myself (as art historian looking at the paintings, some of which are by important Mughal artists), Dr Carl Ernst, who is a specialist in Islam, and Dr James Mallinson, a Sanskritist who focuses on yoga traditions," says Debra.

Another highlight is a powerful sculpture of the Bhairava deity created in Karnataka during the 13th century Hoysala dynasty(in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art).

"In the galleries, this will be juxtaposed with a beautiful granite Bhairava from Tamil Nadu (in the collection of the British Museum), which epitomizes the elegant Chola dynasty aesthetic. The two together will delight connoisseurs and intrigue visitors interested in tantric yoga," says the curator.

The display slated to conclude on January 26, 2014 would include more than 120 objects from 25 museums and private collections in India, Europe, and the United States.

Eighty masterpieces of sculpture and painting, dating from the third to the eighteenth century as well as some 40 colonial and early modern photographs, books, and films, will reveal how yoga was despised as superstition during the 19th century and then resurrected in early 20th century India as a democratic practice open to all.

The exhibition has been a work in progress since the year 2008, from which she was joined in the project by scholars in disciplines of anthropology, art history, religion, philosophy and sociology.

According to Debra the audience for contemporary Indian art is growing all the time.

"Many of the visitors to the Freer-Sackler, whether repeat visitors or here for the first time, are passionate about Indian art. Some come to the permanent galleries in the Freer, – Arts of the Indian subcontinent and the Himalayas,' for a place to commune with or meditate upon extraordinary Hindu and Buddhist sculptures because the galleries are beautifully designed and the works are sublime."

"Those who come to our temporary exhibitions, such as 'Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran' (summer 2012), express interest and delight in simultaneously seeing great art and learning more about Indian culture." says Debra.

The galleries have previously shown contemporary artists from India like Ravinder Reddy, Anish Kapoor and Simryn Gill.

"Ten years ago, audiences in general seemed to focus on the national origins of artists now there is a more profound appreciation of contemporary Indian and Indian-origin artists as full participants in a global conversation," says the curator.

After its debut in Washington "The Art of Transformation" is scheduled to travel to the San Francisco Asian Art Museum (February 21May 25, 2014) and the Cleveland Museum of Art (June 22September 7, 2014).

Arthur Sackler a physician and medical publisher had established numerous foundations and institutions for the advancement of sciences and humanities. Sackler became recognised as one of the world's greatest art collectors and connoisseurs, with a primary interest in Oriental art.

The Arthur M Sackler Gallery of Asian Art which opened in 1987 was to be a showcase for the collection of 1000 masterpieces donated by Sackler from his personal collection- at the time valued in excess of USD 50 million. To mark its silver jubilee this year, the gallery was gifted USD 5 million by the founder's widow, Dame Jillian Sackler.