Old theme, new forms: Impact of Yoga on Indian art through the millennia

Old theme, new forms: Impact of Yoga on Indian art through the millennia

By BHUMIKA POPLI | | 25 June, 2016
(L-R) Diagram of the chakras depicted in a pahari painting, Sandstone sculpture of the Sun God from Madhya Pradesh & Nataraja statue, a popular example of Yoga in visual arts.
A new exhibition in Delhi looks at the age-old discipline of Yoga and its impact on the visual arts tradition in India, highlighting a wide range of sculptures and paintings, some of them dating back to the fifth century, centred on the theme of Yoga, writes Bhumika Popli.

A unique and rare exhibition entitled Yoga in Indian Visual Arts is showcasing the depiction of various aspects of Yoga in Indian paintings, sculptures, scrolls, illustrated manuscripts and books through a selection of reprographic images. The ten-day-long exhibition was inaugurated on 21 June, the second International Yoga Day, at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, at Mansingh Road.

The thematic use of Yoga in this exhibition not only involves visual representation of postures or asanas  of Yoga that modern audiences are familiar with, it also touches upon the philosophy and spiritual underpinnings of yogic practice spanning millennia — ideas like the unity of matter and soul, meditation, self-awareness and silent contemplation.

The 150-odd images are grouped in three different sections: jnana, dhyana and karma, based on the varying aspects of Yoga each of these terms represents. In this exhibition the viewers will find narratives from Ramayana, the principles of Nataraja (the cosmic dance of Shiva) and the philosophies of Dashavatar (the ten avatars of Vishnu) among many more.

The curator of the exhibition, Virendra Bangaroo, who is also an assistant professor of art history at the IGNCA, told Guardian 20 the why he chose to put together this show. “On International Yoga Day,” he said, “I wanted to show something different to the Indian audiences. People of this country are hardly aware of their own culture. Through this exhibition I have tried to inform people that Yoga is present in our arts and culture, especially in the Purans (ancient Indian literature about a wide range of topics, particularly myths, legends and other traditional lore). I want people to come and ask various questions about this exhibition.”

On display here are images of paintings and sculptures belonging to anywhere between fifth century to the 18th. The many prints are sourced variously from collections which are currently with the British Library, British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Ashmolean Museum in the UK , Cleveland Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Arts, Asia Art Museum and Brooklyn Museum.

One set of paintings displayed here, imported from the British Musuem, was once owned by Rani Lakmibai of Jhansi. “These paintings depicting people in various yogic postures were taken to Britain in 1857. They were the part of Rani Laxmibai’s Palace,” informed Bangaroo.

Eminent Bharatanatyam dancer Dr. Kanaka Srinivasan and IGNCA President Shri Ram Bahadur Rai inaugurated the exhibition earlier this week.

Dr. Srinivasan pointed out that classical dance has historically been associated with Yoga. “The mental and physical discipline that dance demands are also necessary ingredients of Yoga. Yoga’s breathing and stretching exercises enhance stamina, flexibility and balance: three things that are crucial for a dancer,” she said.

Rai said that the wide acknowledgement and acceptance of Yoga today is owing in part to the scientific research conducted in this area. He said, “The publication of their works in leading international journals has helped spread the word about the mental and physical benefits of Yoga.”

Those who think Yoga is just about twisting, stretching and breathing, should think again, for Yoga is an entire science in itself which can unite the mind, body, and spirit in a perfect way. This 5000-year-old discipline can unfold infinite potentials of the human mind and soul. Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word Yuj (to integrate) and it pertains the union of the individual consciousness or soul with the Universal Consciousness or spirit. 

Yoga being so deeply ingrained in Indian culture has manifested in every art form and tradition through the ages, sometimes in subtle and striking ways.

Through this exhibition Bangaroo also wants to convey to people abudnance of resources in terms of art and art history present at the IGNCA. He says, “We have a lot of material which people can be familiar with as they require especially in the field of art and art history.  We keep a huge collection of photographs pertaining to visual art, over three lakh handwritten volumes on the subject which we have digitized, personal libraries of eminent authors like Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Kapila Vatsyayan among others which have been donated to the IGNCA. Apart from this, we also have a Library which people can use as they need.”

The bronze sculpture of Shiva as Nataraja from the 11th century Chola dynasty forms an important chapter in Indian art history. It is often called as the supreme statement in Hindu art. Nataraja is also called a yogi.  Bangaroo says that the yogi performs the cosmic cycle and the symbolism of Nataraja cannot be avoided. “Shiva who is regarded the yogi continues the play of universe which is a yogic play. The evolution and the cycle of birth and death is created by this yogi. There is a constant yogic practice is going on.  Shiva is a cosmic dancer  and the transformer and we need to  understand the symbolism represented  in the sculpture,” he says. 

Yoga in Indian Visual Arts continues till 30 June at the IGNCA, Delhi


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