This is a story of seeing deeply and the intimacy that it fosters.
When I heard that Debra Diamond, curator of Yoga: The Art of Transformation was going to run a workshop at our local yoga studio Breathe, on “Looking at the Art of Yoga”, I was terribly excited, this exhibit was on tour at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and was on my list of must-dos (FYI I adore Indian miniatures)! Diamond was also the curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries and having her available to answer all questions Yogini was too good to pass up! The premise was workshop participants would see the exhibit, find a piece that really spoke to us, stand in front of it for a good minute or two and then report back which piece we had engaged in advance of the workshop.
Three Aspects of the Absolute Folio 1 from the Nath Charit opaque watercolor, gold and tin on paper Rajastan, Jodhpur 1823
There were many pieces that spoke to me, ones with green metallic beetle wings and others with silver and gold pigments that engulfed the painting when the light it them just so. There were paintings that were so fine that you needed a magnifying glass to catch the details, created as they were with single haired brushes! There were all the colors of India – saffron gold, parrot green, sindur red, Krishna blue (OK, so there were all the colors). And most impressively there were large, powerful stone statues of yogins, fierce, formidable and fabulous!
Yogini – (She Who Makes a Loud Noise) Uttar Pradesh, Kannauj, sandstone 11th century
What I chose in the end was a quiet miniature of a yogini with a mynah bird. I loved the detailed, fluid landscape of stylized flowers and bushes reminiscent of early Chinese and Persian work, the beauty of her graceful pose, the bird itself who seemed to be calling for her attention, but what I found I was most mesmerized by her gaze.
Yogini with Mynah – “the Dublin Painter” Karnataka Bijapur opaque watercolor on paper 1603-4
The mynah, perched on her arm was playfully speaking with her or maybe tugging at one of the pearls from her earrings but the yogini appeared to be in a trance, looking beyond the bird, beyond everything. In the world but not of it. As I studied the image I was taken with the mysterious “pearls” that swirled about her, they seemed to be of inlayed ivory or bone and perhaps represented some kind of supernatural wisdom or power.
Once at the workshop, we were asked to do some blind drawing (I brought my special yoga sketchbook, yes, everyone should have one) In this exercise we were to keep our eyes on the image on the wall (it was actually a projection of my Yogini with Myna!) and draw without glancing at the paper, as our eyes followed the contours of what saw. The intention here was not to produce an accurate facsimile but to slow down the act of seeing, to engage yourself more fully in the process, to be more present. I think we had five to ten minutes of this and then we shared our reflections on the work and were able to query Debra with all kinds of pent up questions and observations. Turns out my “floating pearls” were actually worm holes of some sort (she’s a very old Yogini).
My blind sketch of Yogini with Mynah
That was all last spring. As my obsession with Yognini with Mynah continued, I researched her online, eager for more details. I found I wasn’t the only one that found her so intriguing. Artist Pushpamala N. and photogrpaher Claire Arni had collaborated in restaging and shooting famous iconic images of South Indian women in Native Types and I had stumbled upon their photographic reenactment of Yogini with a Mynah. I was in love! It was like my ancient Yogini (with whom I felt to be on intimate terms with at this point) had a modern reincarnation that spoke to me in a fresh contemporary voice, better still, she was coming to visit me in my neck of the woods as part of the exhibition Postdate: Photography and Inherited History in India at the San Jose Museum of Art!
I had big expectations (quite literally) I’m afraid I had built up my new yogini to be larger than life and I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed when I saw her in person, I guess I had wanted this modern avatar to be as large as the original was mini. Never-the-less, I was pleased to have found her – much like seeing an old friend or cornering someone you had been stalking!
Obviously I want to share this image that I find so intriguing, but even more so I want to share this rich experience of seeing, of insight. It’s more than memorizing details, it’s being with them, experiencing them, absorbing them, like a lover or a Sufi. It’s the act of being fully present that yoga teaches – and so should art historians and docents!
Speaking of which… Slow Art Day is coming up April 11. …want to give it a try? The de Young is offering Looking with a Soft Gaze with Stephen Holtzman which sounds great or you can definitely do it on your own and share your experience using #SlowArt Day.