Gods, Fakirs Grace ‘Yoga: The Art of Transformation’ in San Francisco

The entire universe is contained within this image of Vishnu as Vishwaroop, including the sun in one eye and the moon in the other, in a painting that is part of the new exhibit “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. (Courtesy Asian Art Museum)

The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco unveiled its latest exhibit, “Yoga: The Art of Transformation,” Feb. 21 with a gala party featuring a hatha yoga class for 150 people, DJ entertainment from MC Yogi and DJ Drez, and a performance by Non Stop Bhangra.

The high spirits of the museum’s West-oriented event lineup captured the contrast between the point of the ancient Indian practice of yoga — which means in part a “yoking” to the divine by means of chanting (bhakti), breathing (pranayama) or meditation (raja yoga) among other disciplines — and the trendy, energetic hatha yoga that has overwhelmed contemporary Western consciousness. 

“Yoga: The Art of Transformation” runs through May 25 and features more than 130 works of art from 25 museums and private collections in India and the U.S. Among its highlights are an installation of three large, bare-breasted stone yoginis from a 10th century South Indian temple; a statue of a fasting Buddha; pages from the world’s first illustrated book of asanas (positions) dating from around 1600; a beautiful, highly detailed blue painting from 1800s Rajasthan depicting Vishnu as Vishwaroop, in his infinite cosmic form; and numerous black-and-white historical photos.

The exhibit was curated by Debra Diamond, associate curator of South and Southeast Asian art for the Freer-Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Museum. It first appeared at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Here in San Francisco — the only West Coast venue for the exhibit — the show’s presentation has been organized by the Asian Art Museum’s associate curator of South Asian Art, Qamar Adamjee, and assistant curator of Himalayan art, Jeff Durham.

Debra Diamond, who received a Ph.D. in South Asian art history from Columbia University, has published numerous articles on Indian and contemporary Asian art and is recognized as an expert in Indian court painting.

This show does not attempt to define the term “yoga,” explained Diamond. And that is deliberate; instead, she wants viewers to look beyond labels.

“The word yoga, etymologically, has more meanings than almost any other Sanskrit word,” she told India-West at a press preview Feb. 19. “So yes, it means yoke … but it doesn’t always mean the yoking of the small self to the larger Brahman. That is only one meaning. Speaking as a Sanskritist, what I have seen is Americans say, ‘Oh, I know the meaning of this word,’ and then all of a sudden all thinking stops after that.

“I want people to come in, spend two hours, and see the richness and diversity … these galleries are filled with canonical masterpieces.”

The exhibit is divided into parts delving into the centrality of yoga in Indian culture; the role of teachers; and the earliest depictions of yogic traditions and Hinduism in the West, including Thomas Edison’s 1902 film “Hindoo Fakir,” the first American movie ever produced about India; and a replica copy of Swami Vivekananda’s influential 1893 work “Raja Yoga.” 

Diamond acknowledges that many of yoga’s deeper concepts can’t be expressed in art. “They exist at the interface between sectarian traditions and real people like us, who are not enlightened teachers. We get to see how yoga operated in the world. It’s a different emphasis. 

“[The works] don’t really show pranayama. Or mantra yoga. But they do show the ways that yogis live, and great spiritual goals, and concepts of the body. So if people come to this exhibition and you expect these artworks to be illustrations of what we know from textual histories, then they’re not going to find that. That would be reductive,” Diamond told India-West.

“One of the most important things about this exhibition I’d like to tell the Indian American community is that it shows yoga’s origins in India, its development in India, and its profound relationship to metaphysics in India.”

A 328-page catalogue accompanying the exhibition offers more detail and insight on the works and how they were put together. 

The Asian Art Museum is located at 200 Larkin Street, San Francisco, near BART and convenient parking. For information on the programs scheduled to complement “Yoga: The Art of Transformation,” visit AsianArt.org or call (415) 581-3500.

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