Yoga in Indian Visual Art and Culture

Five_faced Shiva_2014.2.011(1)Yoga is practiced daily by millions worldwide, but few are cognizant of its origins and relative importance to Indian culture and identity. Although its history is long and complex, yoga reflects the rich philosophical and cultural currents that traversed the Indian subcontinent over thousands of years.

In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Mr. Jeff Durham, Assistant Curator of Himalayan Art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, about Yoga: The Art of Transformation and Enter the Mandala: Cosmic Centers and Mental Maps of Himalayan Buddhism, which are currently on view at the Asian Art Museum.

JW: Mr. Jeff Durham, it is an immense pleasure to welcome you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and discuss this exciting new show at the Asian Art Museum. Yours is our first interview focused on the arts and culture of the Indian subcontinent, and we so appreciate your time and expertise.

Yoga: The Art of Transformation presents 131 works, which illuminate and frame the history of yoga through art, the practice’s significance within India’s cultures and religions, and its evolution over thousands of years.

2013GK4078How was this exhibition conceived, and which objects are not to be overlooked in your opinion? Among the presented works, which have attracted the most curiosity or comments from visitors to the Asian Art Museum?

JD: To answer your first question, the exhibition initially came to us as a collaborative proposal from the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The organizing curator had been working on a series of important paintings from 19th-century India that reveal previously unseen aspects of yoga art and philosophy.

In the course of her work, she was able to extend the temporal range of the exhibition backward in time to the first art historical evidence for yoga practice, and forward into the 20th-century. We were excited not merely to be a part of this historic exhibition, but through our cooperative venture, to participate in the ongoing history of the tradition itself. You might call this a kind of “engaged history” as we hope visitors are stimulated by yoga’s unique heritage.

DTR438330The artworks that have attracted the most curiosity and comments from our visitors are probably the three stone yoginis whose presence so rightly dominates the first gallery of the exhibition. Created a little over a thousand years ago, they come from the same South Indian temple in Tamil Nadu and have been reunited for the first time. Moreover, we have arrayed them in our galleries to suggest what was likely their original configuration: a circular, open-air temple.

But most important is the presence and power these sculptures project — in fact, they are embodiments of power, Shakti in Sanskrit, along with the inherent ambivalence of power. On this count, an individual might consider how one of the yoginis smiles quite benevolently, while glowering fiercely through the furrowed brow called a bhrkuti in Sanskrit — a mark of incipient violence. Under these conditions, she is a hieroglyph of the two-edged sword that is power.

JW: Yoga explores a rich and ancient visual culture in the form of sculpture, illustrated manuscripts, prints, photographs, books, and film, which elucidate the key aspects of yoga — as a practice — as well as many unknown facts.

Ascetics2014.2.049What are some peculiarities with regard to the practice of yoga and its depiction in art — across space, time, and medium — which might surprise the public? I would imagine that it would be especially difficult to convey some the more esoteric aspects of yoga, while presenting facts and histories.

JD: What will surprise our visitors, as much as it did our curators, was the very recent date at which so much of the corpus of yoga ideas attained visual articulation.  For example, the first illustrated handbook of many complex yoga postures comes not from the earliest historical strata of the tradition, c. 300 BCE, but rather from the 16th-century CE. Moreover, this handbook, called the Ocean of Life, was translated from Sanskrit into Persian by a Sufi scholar (an adherent of mystical Islam).

Bhairava_raga2013.2.015I think a fair number of visitors will also be surprised by how many of the most esoteric aspects of yoga actually do attain visual representation in this exhibition. “Esoteric” can be understood in several intersecting ways, none of which really carries with it the English sense of “difficulty,” “complexity,” or perhaps even “irrelevance.”

Here, “esoteric” means simply that which is “hidden,” not immediately present to the senses as we typically interpret their data. So on this analysis, what could be more esoteric than the “ultimate ground of being,” that undifferentiated conscious matrix from which the entire universe evolves? That is certainly present here, as is the process of universal evolution itself, presented from the point of view of yoga.

There is another esoteric aspect of yoga that is also readily visible in the exhibition’s artworks — the so-called “subtle body,” and its universal analogue, the “cosmic body.”

JW: In addition to Yoga, the Asian Art Museum has just recently opened Enter the Mandala: Cosmic Centers and Mental Maps of Himalayan Buddhism.

The practice of yoga and the contemplation of a mandala require self-transformation, transcendence, and concentration. Are these two exhibitions linked in other ways?

JD: There is actually a subtle link here that is incredibly important, but that is sufficiently complex that we have not explicitly called it out in the exhibition. The art featured in Enter the Mandala comes from a tradition of image, text, and meditation called “yoga tantra” — a hybrid designation that would potentially create more confusion than clarity in the context of the limited information we can convey in the Yoga exhibition.

Vairochana2014.3.1991.1Yoga tantra, properly speaking, is a mandala-based system of meditation based on complex visualizations of specific Buddhist deities. The yoga part of the designation has to do with the purpose of the practice — in this case, union of your awareness with that of the Buddha.

The “tantra” part emphasizes two apparently disparate aspects of the practice — its emphasis on visualization, and its emphasis on imagery that might be considered “transgressive” of traditional social categories — in this case not so much through the sexual imagery that dominates especially the Tibetan phases of the tradition, but rather through the construal of the individual practitioner as nothing less than a Buddha — a technique called “taking the goal as the path,” deemed so powerful that it can catalyze enlightenment “in this very life.”

So you might say that a great deal of material focused on the importance of concentration is itself concentrated in this exhibition.

JW: Among the Buddhist faithful, mandalas are regarded as not merely images to see, but rather as worlds to traverse. In Enter the Mandala, 14th-century paintings align a museum gallery to the cardinal directions, transforming a vast space into an “architectural mandala.”

Taimamandala2014.3.B61D11Mr. Durham, could you share with our audience a little bit more information as to the exhibition layout of Enter the Mandala? This is quite a novel approach.

JD: The layout is simplicity itself. Now, the basic mandala geometry involves a central axis surrounded by four symbolic cardinal directions; in Tateuchi Gallery, our three 14th-century paintings serve to articulate the central north-south axis of the mandala. We were able to locate the fourth member of the set, a painting of the blue, eastern Buddha named “Akshobhya” at the Honolulu Museum of Art but could not borrow it; a digital reproduction stands in for this painting.

The western painting of a Buddha named Amitabha is also lost; here, a Japanese painting of Amitabha’s western paradise reveals his western paradise. Additional artworks pertaining to each symbolic direction appear in the relevant symbolic region of the mandala. In the end, the result is a room configured by our art as a mandala-Maharana_SangramSingh2014.2.104patterned space that the visitor can actually enter; instead of observing an image of a mandala, you become part of the action.

So as with the yoga exhibition, Enter the Mandala is similarly an exercise in what I like to call “engaged history.”

JW: The arts of the Himalayas and the Indian subcontinent remain mysterious and unknown to many in the West. In your opinion, how can museums and cultural organizations stimulate interest and study of Indian and Himalayan art?

JD: First let me address why the enterprise to which you refer is so important — the historical art of the Himalayas is rapidly being dispersed, and any recovery of the advanced knowledge systems they represent and embody is in great danger of being lost forever. How to address this problem? Certainly a greater familiarity with the kaleidoscopic beauty of Himalayan art traditions tends to generate excitement in our visitors, and that is part of the motivation behind Enter the Mandala.

From my perspective, however, the key to generating ongoing involvement requires us to leverage our museum’s artistic, interpretive, and spatial resources to reveal how this apparently complex and perhaps intimidating art tradition is actually about Chakras_Monograph2014.2.043something quite familiar and indeed basic: awareness.

Although it might look challenging or even in some way exotic, the mandala and the yoga tantra philosophies it embodies are actually all about consciousness. In particular, its transformation from a deluded, subject-object perceptual matrix into one that recognizes subtle, integral connections between apparent opposites like mind and body, or self and world.

JW: I thank you so much for your time and consideration, Mr. Durham! We always look forward to the Asian Art Museum’s superb exhibitions, and we eagerly await your next show.

JD: Many thanks James!

The Asian Art Museum is the only U.S. West Coast venue for Yoga: The Art of Transformation. It runs until May 25, 2014. Enter the Mandala: Cosmic Centers and Mental Maps of Himalayan Buddhism runs until October 26, 2014.

Image Key:

  1. The five-faced Shiva, approx. 1730-1740 CE. India; Himachal Pradesh state, former kingdom of Mandi. Opaque watercolor on paper. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Given by Col. T. G. Gayer-Anderson and Maj. R. G. Gayer-Anderson, Pasha, IS 239-1952. Photo courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
  2. Vishnu as Vishvarupa, approx. 1800-1820 CE. India; Rajasthan state, former kingdom of Jaipur. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Given by Mrs. Gerald Clark, IS 33-2006.
  3. Yogini, approx. 900-975 CE. India; Kanchipuram or Kaveripakkam, Tamil Nadu state. Possibly dolerite. Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, L.A. Young Fund, 57.88.
  4. Ascetics before the shrine of the goddess, page from a manuscript of the Kedara Kalpa, approx. 1815 CE, attrib. to the workshop of Purkhu (Indian, active 1780-approx. 1820 CE). India; Himachal Pradesh state, former kingdom of Kangra. Opaque watercolor on paper. Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland (Gift of John and Berthe Ford, 2001), W. 859.
  5. “Bhairava Raga,” from the Chunar Ragamala, 1591 CE. India; Chunar, Uttar Pradesh state. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, IS 40-1981.Photo courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
  6. The cosmic Buddha Vairochana, approx. 1275-1350 CE. Tibet, Sakya Monastery. Thangka; colors on cotton. H. 33 3/8 x W. 26 1/4 in. Museum purchase, City Arts Trust Fund, 1991.1 © Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.
  7. Taima mandala (detail), approx. 1300-1400 CE. Japan. Hanging scroll; ink, colors and gold on silk. H. 70 x W. 67 1/4 in. The Avery Brundage Collection, B61D11+. © Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.
  8. Maharana Sangram Singh II visiting Gosain Nilakanthji after a tiger hunt, approx. 1725 CE. India; Udaipur, Rajasthan state, Former kingdom of Mewar. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia, Felton Bequest, 1980, AS92-1980.
  9. The Theosophical body, from The Chakras: A Monograph, 1927, by Charles W. Leadbeater (British, 1854-1934). Book; Wheaton, Illinois: Theosophical Publishing House. Courtesy of General Collections, Library of Congress, Washington DC, BP573.C5 L4 1972. Photo courtesy of General Collections, Library of Congress, Washington DC.

Jeff_Head_ShotJeff Durham is Assistant Curator of Himalayan Art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. Formerly professor of religion at George Mason University, St. Thomas Aquinas College and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Mr. Durham is a specialist in esoteric art history and visualization practice. His research languages include Sanskrit, Tibetan and epigraphic Prakrit, and he currently has visions of creating the first cross-cultural exhibition of Vajrayana Buddhist art on the U.S. West Coast. Additionally, he blogs regularly for the Asian Art Museum.

James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at the Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is also a freelance writer, editor, and journalist who is interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world — while still retaining his medievalist and early modernist tendencies — James is committed to excellence in journalism and academic research. Currently, he co-hosts the Florida Caribe show on WSLR 96.5 FM in Florida, and his greatest passion is translation. James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news pieces to be “illuminating.”

Strategically located on the Pacific Rim and serving one of the most diverse communities in the United States, The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco — Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture is uniquely positioned to lead a diverse, global audience in discovering the distinctive materials, aesthetics and intellectual achievements of Asian art and cultures, and to serve as a bridge of understanding between Asia and the United States and between the diverse cultures of Asia. It has one of the most comprehensive collections of Asian Art in the world.

Permission is granted to reproduce these images solely in connection with a review or editorial commentary on YOGA: THE ART OF TRANSFORMATION (exhibition at the ASIAN ART MUSEUM, FEB 21-MAY 25, 2014) and ENTER THE MANDALA: COSMIC CENTERS AND MENTAL MAPS OF HIMALAYAN BUDDHISM (exhibition at the ASIAN ART MUSEUM, MARCH 14-OCT. 26, 2014). All other reproductions are strictly prohibited without the prior written consent of the copyright holder and/or museum. All images featured in this interview have been properly attributed to their respective owner(s). Unauthorized reproduction of text and images is strictly prohibited. Special thanks is given to Ms. Annie G. Tsang, Public Relations Manager at the Asian Art Museum, for helping make this interview possible. Ms. Karen Barrett-Wilt is to be thanked for her assistance in the editorial process. The views presented here are not necessarily those of the Ancient History Encyclopedia (AHE). All rights reserved. © AHE 2014. Please contact us for rights to republication.

James Wiener
About the Author
James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist and Latin Americanist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.