A journal resting in a custom acrylic book mount.

NLM Visits the Sackler

By Stephen J. Greenberg

Recently, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, a unit of the Smithsonian Institution specializing in Asian Art, approached NLM to borrow materials for inclusion in a new, international exhibition about Yoga.  Now open, Yoga: The Art of Transformation displays more than 120 works, from the 3rd century to the early 20th century borrowed from 25 museums and private collections in India, Europe, and the United States.

In the words of Debra Diamond, Associate Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Sackler Gallery:

The Art of Transformation is the first exhibition ever created about the visual history of yoga. Using multiple cultural lenses that engage with the breadth of India’s yogic imagery, the exhibition will include aesthetically powerful and contextually relevant works drawn from Indian, European and American collections.  Three-quarters of the works are canonical masterpieces, while one-quarter are popular images (ranging from 19th-century photographs to film posters and anatomical maps).  However, while its thematic focus and overarching structural methodology are drawn from visual culture studies, its aesthetic and historical focus on individual works is art historical.

All over the world, millions of people—including 16 million Americans—practice yoga for health benefits and to find spiritual calm. Practitioners and non-practitioners alike are aware of yoga’s origins in India. But very few know the rich visual history of yoga, which reveals its profound philosophical underpinnings, the social roles yogic practitioners have played, and the significant transformations yoga has undergone as it has become a modern—and global—phenomenon.”

The Sackler has borrowed three titles from NLM’s collections, ranging in date from 1799 to the mid 20th century. The first is Narayana Ghamande’s Yogasopana-purvacatushka,  published in 1951. To once more quote Debra Diamond, this book is “a key transitional text in the history of the representation of the yogic body, and was conceived as a work of art as well as a practical instruction manual.” It’s a small book, modestly printed, whose influence belies its humble appearance.

Another item on the Sackler’s list was Yoga Mimamsa, a journal of yoga scholarship and technique intended to bolster yoga’s scientific status, was founded in 1924 by Swami Kuvalyananda.  The profusely illustrated journal published articles meant to “combine ideas of biology, physiology and anatomy with those of yogic metaphysics, transcendence and magical power.” NLM has loaned five issues of Yoga Mimamsa representing the entire five year run of the journal, which has become very rare.

However, as interesting as the Yogasopana-purvacatushka  and the Yoga Mimamsa are, the most spectacular item from NLM to be loaned to the Sackler is Balthazar Solvyns’s Collection of Two Hundred and fifty Coloured Etchings: descriptive of the manners, customs and dresses of the Hindoos, 1799.  Solvyns, a Flemish artist working in Calcutta (now Kolkata) produced hand-colored etchings of mendicants, fakirs, and the many other people he saw in the streets, interpreting them for a mostly British audience back home.  The book itself is a large scrapbook: color printing was very primitive at the turn of the 19th century, and it was far easier to print etchings in black and white on separate sheets, have them hand-colored with water colors, and then glue the plates into a bound book.  Solvyns’s book has also been featured in NLM’s Hidden Treasure 175th anniversary book.

A hand colored etching of a man in loincloth and paint.
Balthazar Solvyns’s Collection of Two Hundred and fifty Coloured Etchings: descriptive of the manners, customs and dresses of the Hindoos, 1799
National Library of Medicine #2711493R

As usual, there was paperwork to do, primarily to ensure that the items were properly transported and displayed.  Interestingly, the early 20th century clay-coated paper and stapled gatherings of the Yoga Mimamsa presented much more conservation concerns than the hand-made 18th century paper of the Solvyns. But the Sackler staff fabricated sophisticated supports for the frail journal issues, and these rare items take their place beside items from the Sacker’s collections and materials from other institutions to bring Yoga: The Art of Transformation to the public.

Yoga: The Art of Transformation will be on display through January 26, 2014 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington DC. For further information, go to: http://www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/current/yoga.asp

Stephen J Greenberg in his officeStephen J. Greenberg, PhD, is Coordinator of Public Services for the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.


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