when pictures fail me…
There is a buzz building in the summer breeze other than that of the cicadas. Word is spreading among scholars, art lovers, and all breeds of yoga enthusiasts of the upcoming Smithsonian presentation Yoga: The Art of Transformation. What is billed as the world’s first exhibition to showcase the leitmotif of yoga in Indian visual culture, it offers over 120 art works and artifacts dating from the third to the early twentieth century. YogaCityNYC’s Sharon Watts sat down with Debra Diamond, curator of the exhibit, to learn more.
SW: It’s hard to believe that this hasn’t been done before. Why now, and why here?
DD: It’s unclear why nobody’s done this before; it’s really a huge and amorphous topic. Figures of yoga practitioners and yogic concepts have been deeply woven into the Indian visual culture for many, many years. I’ve been working on it for twenty years in various ways. Simultaneously, yoga scholarship has really exploded over the last fifteen years–tons of new discoveries and new understandings have surfaced. I’ve been collaborating with scholars to bring it together, fifteen of them just to compile the catalog. So it all finally came together.
SW: How has your personal interest in yoga both influenced and fueled your work as an art historian?
DD: Initially I was working on some fabulous, undiscovered paintings that nobody cared about, having to do with hatha yoga lineage at that particular moment in time. Since I was interested in yoga personally, I kept looking for more examples, and eventually met other scholars working on similar themes but in textual histories. A lot of the canonical images of Indian masterpieces were already known, but we didn’t understand their relationship to yoga traditions. One of my discoveries was that one image of a Mughal which had been identified as a male guru is in fact a woman. I am so focused on yoga that I’ll really scrutinize things, and that was an exciting find.
SW: Tell me more about the central theme of the exhibit.
DD: Yoga constantly transforms and simultaneously gets imbedded in culture. The exhibit explores yoga’s goals and means of transforming body and consciousness, its profound philosophical foundations, its role within multiple religious and secular arenas, and the roles that yogis played in society, from divinized teachers to militant ascetics. That being said, the path of modern yoga is still being laid.
SW: Included in the exhibit is something uniquely American, a film by our own guru of enlightenment, Thomas Edison. How did that make the cut?
DD: The time that yoga was being spread transnationally, at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, is depicted in the Modern Transformations part of the exhibit. Prints and photography were helping to spread yoga, but one of the ways that yogis were understood in this colonial period was as fakirs–sinister, exotic, dubious magicians. So, in essence, they were feared and despised. The Edison film, Hindoo Fakir (1906), is really pretty trippy! It’s the first movie ever produced about India, and is an archetypal example of that perception, using an Indian magician capitalizing on that exoticism by doing yogi magic tricks. Swami Vivekananda came to America in 1893 to introduce a philosophically focused yoga, but also in a crusade to thwart the Hindoo Fakir mindset.
SW: How does the exhibit address the change of heart in how we’ve come to view yoga?
DD: The rudiments of modern yoga as non-sectarian, as a health practice, and as posture sequences developed in India. Word spread transnationally partly through Swami Vivekananda. There are photos of him by Thomas Harrison along with what may be the earliest film of Krishnamarchya and his student B.K.S. Iyengar demonstrating posture sequences.
SW: You are looking for “yoga messengers” and crowdfunding this show. This is a first, engaging in “the Art of Transformation of Fundraising.” How did you come to this decision and what are your goals? And what are yoga messengers?
DD: The funding we get from the government covers the building, but provides nothing for the exhibitions. We’ve always fundraised traditionally with corporations and generous and wealthy individuals. The idea of crowdfunding came up with yoga people in focus groups. People in the yoga community wanted it to happen. I’ve developed great relationships with many different factions of this group, and it’s been porous from the start, no matter what their specific practice is. Our goal is $125,000 by July 1, but certainly contributions can continue after. Once the exhibition opens, you’ll be invited to join us as a VIP at a special event at the museum this fall, along with yoga practitioners, scholars, art enthusiasts, and museum fans.
Yoga Messengers promote the campaign online and in person, after receiving a packet of basic materials. We invite you to use your creativity to make a video, post images, and encourage friends to participate. To show our thanks, you’ll be our guests at a special gallery event during the exhibition. I think it will work. People want to be involved and contribute.
SW: I’m already on board.