Yoga: An Art Chronicled

Yoga, as we know it today, is practiced daily by millions of people though very few understand the essence of it. Dating back to the pre-vedic period, Yoga originally was a means of spiritually uniting one with the Divine, within oneself.

To achieve this harmony of mind and body, Yoga has seven primary schools of physical, mental and spiritual disciplines. Today, the Yoga we take pleasure in and identify the most with is Hatha Yoga, which is one of the seven paths, its primarily about physical discipline, the other forms include Raja, Gyana, Bhakti, Karma, Mantra and Tantra Yoga.

ascetic-practicing-yoga

Ascetic practicing various techniques of Yoga (1825)

 

Leaving aside the spiritual aspects of the practice let’s focus on how the physical path ‘Hatha Yoga’ which is most loved and practiced across the world was chronicled down the centuries with beautiful paintings, sculptors and illustrations. Starting from Veda’s, in the course of history there have been numerous textual manuals for Hatha Yoga, most comprehensive being- Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Shiva Samhita. However, unquestionably, humans are visual creatures, illustrative documentation of Yoga was inevitable. Starting 16th century, the visual recording of Hatha Yoga gave result to remarkable artworks.

Bahr al-hayat or Ocean of Life (16th-century)- is the earliest known encyclopedic manuscript with brilliantly illustrated Asanas accompanied with detailed descriptions. Commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir the creative piece was composed by Sufi master Muhammad Ghawth and illustrated by renowned artist Govardhan. The Sufi masters’ motive was to teach his disciples Hath Yoga to gain meditative power. The artworks depict ash-smeared Yogi’s in various postures complemented with scenic backgrounds and detailed items used by the Yogi’s in their daily life. The miniature drawings follow a subdued palette highlighting the pensive mood and austerities of a Yogic life.

Shown below are few leafs from the manuscript

khecari-and-sthamba-mudra

Khecari and Sthamba Mudra

nad-and-sunasana-mudra

Nad and Sunasana Mudra

uttanakurmasana_akunchan-mudra

Uttanakurmasana and Akunchan Mudra

 

Miniature paintings (17th century)- A rich collection of Miniature paintings of Asana’s based on Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a classic Sanskrit manual on Hatha Yoga. This brilliantly colored manual is graphically impressive with accurate postures paired with well-defined angles.

Shown below are few paintings from the collection

miniature-painting-of_hatha-yoga

miniature-painting_of-hatha-yoga

miniature-painting-of-hatha-yoga

 

Miniature Pahari painting (17th century)- Saptarishi (sons of Brahma) shown in different Yogic postures. Legend has it that Lord Shiva shared his knowledge of Yogic science with seven distinguished rishi’s and laid different characteristics of Yoga into each one of them, these aspects became the seven basic forms of Yoga. Even today, Yoga maintains these seven distinct forms.

the-seven-rishis-saptarishi-indian-miniature-painting

 

Watercolour on paper (17th century)- Lord Shiva, the Adiyogi or the first Yogi, regarded as the founder of Yoga is shown seated in Eight Yogic Postures on a tiger skin, against a green background. Painted in opaque watercolors on paper, the artwork projects a meditative and serene feel.

shiva-in-eight-yogic-postures

 

Murals in the Dalai Lamas’ private meditation temple (17th century): The details of a brilliantly colored and animated mural in the Lukhang temple, or “Temple of the Water Spirits” located in Lhasa, portrays Yogis in 23 Yoga positions with brief description, titled “The Secret Keys of the Channels and Winds.” The temple was a secret space created by the fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century – and reserved for the private meditation for his successors.

hatha-yoga-murals-in-dalai-lamas-temple

Images copyright- Thomas Laird (Source- hyperallergic.com)

 

Engravings by Mrs. Belnos (1832): Hand-colored engravings by Mrs. Belnos are believed to be the earliest visual record of Yogic practice’s followed during colonial India. The series of twenty-four graphic plates were prepared by author Mrs. Belnos’s French lithographer husband J.J. Belnos. The intricate drawings demonstrate different signs and postures performed during morning devotional ceremonies.

mrs-belnos_engravings_of-pranayama

mrs-belnos_engravings-on-yoga

 

Sritattvanidhi (19th century): An ancient Kannada treatise, “The Illustrious Treasure of Realities” has one of its sections that includes instructions and illustrations of 122 postures, making it by far the most elaborate visual text on Asanas in existence before the twentieth century.

sritattvanidhi

Image source: fearless.yoga

 

Sculptors, Murals and Frescos of Yogi’s and Yogini’s, richly adorn the Indian historical temples, these ancient artworks narrate mythological scenes and symbolic themes from sacred texts like Vedas and Upanishads.

Yoga-Narasiṃha, a man lion, is one of the several forms of Vishnu’s incarnation where he appears sitting cross-legged in a Yogic posture. On the request of his devotee, Prahlada, He took this Yoga form to calm the heat emanating from Him. This avatar of Lord Vishnu has been one of the favorite subjects for the artworks in ancient South Indian temples.

Yoga Narasiṁha form at a temple in Vijayanagara, Hampi (13th and 17th centuries) is the most creatively striking art-piece amongst them all.

yoga-narasi%e1%b9%81ha-form-at-a-temple-in-vijayanagara-hampi

 

Temple Nataraj (Chola Era 10th-12th centuries) is where Sage Patanjali wrote Yoga Sutras. The temple hosts carvings, sculpture and other allied arts of Yogi’s and Yogini’s in different Hath Yoga postures.

yogi-and-yogini-in-temple-nataraj

Image source: 10000yearsblog.wordpress

 

An ancient sculpture of Patanjali depicted in half-man, half-serpent form, signifying his enlightenment. In Yogic science a snake is symbolic of kundalini energy.

sage-patanjali

 

Srirangam Temple (6th to 9th centuries AD): Bas reliefs depicting Yogi’s performing various Hatha Yoga Asanas.

Shown below are ‘Tree posture’ (Vrksa Asana) and ‘Bhujapid Asana’.

srirangam-temple_vrksa-and-bhujapid-asana

Image copyright (rt): Rob Linrothe, (Left) mahavidya.ca

 

Jambukeswaram temple (2nd century AD) Shown below are some Hatha Yoga reliefs carved on pillars and walls of the temple.

hatha-yoga-reliefs-in-jambukeswaram-temple

Image copyright: Hari Prasad Nadig

 

Ranganathaswamy Temple (6th to 9th centuries AD): Stone carvings of Yoga Asanas.

hatha-yoga-stone-carvings-in-ranganathaswamy-temple

Image copyright: Nicolas Mirguet

 

Mahabalipuram: Ancient stone carving of Vrks Asana

stone-carving-of-vrksasana

Image copyright: Linda-Sama

 

Yoga Guru Shobhna Juneja, elaborates on the powerful connection between ‘Art’ and ‘Yoga’.

sobhna_yoga-guru_The system of Yoga is so vast and generous that deriving creative expression from it is natural for the artists. Although the yoga discipline is strictly an internal experience but sometimes yogis creatively ‘digress’ from it and start enjoying the artful dimensions of yoga mudras. No wonder then we see yoga as artful and glossy.

Yoga has been preserved through Guru Parampara (from Guru Lineage) whereas artworks inspired by Yoga have ‘glorified’ this ancient inner science (yoga). More so, if one sees these masterpieces, one wonders that ‘Yoga is beautiful’ and it’s a path to ‘Pure Love and Liberation.”

 

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Ardhanarishvara in Contemporary and Folk Art

Ardhanarishvar a

Ardhanarishvara is one of the most innovative theme in Indian art, which dates back to the Kushan period in Indian history (30–375 CE). The androgynous composite depicts half male and half female, the right side is Lord Shiva the other half being his spouse Parvati. It symbolizes the fusion of masculine and feminine energies (Purusha and Prakriti), the concept states that the universe was creates from the union of sexes.

This innovative composition was visually refined during the Gupta period (320-600 CE), passed down further as one of the favorite theme of various Indian folk art, particularly Madhubani, Patachitra, Miniature Painting, Kerala Mural paintings and many others. Interestingly, the composition hasn’t evolved or transformed in any way, retaining its original interpretation.

Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple

Chola-era sculpture of Ardhanarishvara (11th Century)

Ardhanarishvara is a common subject used by Madhubani artists, a folk painting of Bihar which mainly depicts Gods and their mythological stories. Shown below is a marvelous masterpiece made by Sita Devi, a renowned Madhubani artists. Typical characteristics of Madhubani art, decorative designs, large eloquent eyes and brilliant colors make this outstanding artwork an ideal illustration of the synthesis of Rudra and Shakti.

Ardhanarishvar

Artwork by prominent Madhubani artist Sita Devi

Miniature Painting is a genre that has dominated the Indian art scene since its advent in 11th century. Since they started as illustrations for manuscripts the subjects have mostly been religious and folk literature. Countless variations of Ardhanarishvara have been made in this genre through the centuries. The reason why this subject is unique for miniature art is because as per the typical characteristics of miniature art, all the human characters are seen with side profile however Ardhanarishvara is the one of the few theme’s that is represented from a frontal view since it depicts half male and half female, split down the middle.

Ardhanarishvara Miniature painting

Ardhanarishvara made in Rajput Miniature art style

With the influence of tantrism there were various compositions of Shiva and Shakti painted in Buddhist Thangka Art. Below is the popular Ardhanarishvara artwork painted in Tibetan Thangka style, it conveys the unity in the most beautiful manner. The posture bent in three parts (head, torso and right leg) adds grace and elegance. Intricacy of the artwork and the bright colors make the composition of the union of Siva and Shakti truly striking.

Ardhanarishvara

Ardhanarishvara made in Buddhist Thangka Art style

Kerala Mural Paintings are the frescos depicting mythology and legends, which are drawn on the walls of temples. Most of the masterpieces of Kerala mural art are in the Shiva Temple in Ettumanoor (Kottayam, Kerala) hence Ardhanarishvara is a common theme used by the genre of artists who following this traditional mural art form.

Kerala mural Painting

Ardhanarishvara made in Kerala Mural art form

Patachitra– ‘Pata’ meaning ‘vastra’ or clothing, and ‘chitra’ means painting. This creative folk art form of Orissa, is a cloth-based scroll painting. Since beginning of Pattachitra culture, subject matter is mostly mythological, religious stories and folk lore. Shown below is an exceptionally beautiful Patachitra artwork of Ardhanarishvara.

Patachitra

Till date, Ardhanarishvara remains a beloved theme for not just folk artists but also Indian contemporary artists. Shown below is an artwork by Nandlal Bose, one of the pioneers of modern Indian art.

Nand Lal Bose tempera on cloth christies

Nand Lal Bose-  tempera on cloth

Ardhnareshwar

Artwork by Baani Sekhon

Image source- isha.sadhguru.org, halibedragons.wordpress.com, emithilaart.com, exoticindia.com, Christies.com

Indian Ghats- a unique genre of paintings

Indian Ghats and rural river banks particularly Benares and Mathura have been a favorite subject for artists, starting from the ancient miniature painting where religious figures were often shown near a sacred river and the theme continues to be popular among the artists of contemporary times. It’s probably because of the exotic beauty and uniqueness of the composition that attracts the artist to capture the view.

Even the European artist’s who travelled Asia (18th to mid 19th century) known as the orientalist painters, were particularly fascinated by the rituals performed on waterfront of Benares, women water carriers clad in bright colored clothes, spiritually elevating Ghats of the sacred city of Mathura and exotic sites of rural river banks.

Shown below are two of the most popular paintings depicting Mathura Ghats and Ganga Water Carriers made by the American artist Edwin Lord Weeks.

Along the Ghats, Mathura, 1881

 

Water Carriers of the Ganges 1885 (Women collecting water from the river Ganga)

 

There are many reasons to this art genre of ‘Ghat Paintings’ for being so popular, cultural vitality, unending possibilities of interesting compositions and exceedingly flexible layouts. In E. L. Weeks’s paintings (shown above) the ethnic subjects in the foreground are the highlight, complementing the busy yet restrained setup in the background.

British artist, William Simpson (watercolors shown below) preferred to emphasize on the beauty of the rituals and traditional elements. ,

Ghats on the banks of the river Yamuna, Mathura, 1865

 

Panchganga Ghat from the Ganges, Benares, 1860

 

William Daniell and Auguste Borget treat their artworks as scenic landscapes. Unlike other artworks depicting religious sites, Daniell’s main focus is the rustic life and the picturesque flora and fauna. The fleets of stone stairs are natural and the subjects are engaged in activities which are not religious in nature.

The Banks of the Ganges, by artist William Daniell 1825

 

Mosque on the Banks of the Ganges, by artist A. Borget 1846

 

Even in current times there are distinguished Indian artists who depict the splendid beauty of Indian Ghats in the most original manner. Paramesh Paul an eminent contemporary artist, makes only Benares themed paintings, his paintings are characterized by profound and vibrant colors, mysticism, and a remarkable effect of light and shade.

 

 

In contrast to the other artworks of this genre, artist Somnath Bothe’s Ghats are serene and soothing.

 

 

 

Manoj Das’s approach highlights devotion and spirituality. The dazzling spectacle of the site after the evening prayers when the devotees float oil lamps in to the river, is illustrated marvelously. Even though his palette is limited the painting manages to portray the brilliance of the scene.

 

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India Documented in Watercolors (1850-1870)

Enticed by the exotic culture and stunning landscapes of India many British artists travelled the country and recorded their experiences via artworks, most popular being the water-colorist William Carpenter. He travelled extensively for seven years (1850-57) and managed to capture the Indian culture and landscapes in the most accurate and realistic manner.  It’s because of the authenticity and well-observed preciseness of his artworks that his wide collection of 200+ watercolors is considered a valuable source of information for documentation purposes.

Shown below are some of the most incredible watercolors made by W. Carpenter.

Interior of the Neminath temple, Dilwara, Mount Abu- 1851

 

Two Kashmiri Girls- 1854

 

The Golden Temple at Amritsar- 1854

 

Grove of date palms near Breach Candy, Bombay- 1850

 

Street scene in the bazaar in Udaipur, Rajasthan- 1851

 

Akali Sikh sitting near the causeway to the ‘Golden Temple’ in Amritsar- 1854

 

Interior of the Golden Temple, Worshippers are gathered around the Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred book of the Sikhs which rests on a red cushion under a canopy Amritsar- 1854

 

Portrait of Tara Chand, the court painter of Udaipur- 1851

 

A Singwali or woman of a wandering gypsy tribe- 1855

 

Mar Canal at Srinagar, Kashmir- 1855

There were many other artists commissioned by the East India Company, the main propose was to give the British community back home, a pictorial peek into the ethnic culture and the amazing flora & fauna of India. William Simpson, also a watercolorist has a comprehensive set of artworks to his credit. Originally a war artist, he was sent to India to sketch historic events following the ‘Revolt of 1857’ (Sepoy war) however he was so enamored by the diverse Indian customs, notable monuments and festivities, he ended up painting more of local scenes and landscapes. His plan was to produce an illustrated publication of his artworks made in India which unfortunately never materialized.

Shown below are some of the remarkable watercolors made by W. Simpson.

Ellora- 1862

 

Panchganga Ghat from the Ganges, Benares, Varanasi- 1860

 

Ghats on the bank of the River Jumna, Mathura (U.P) 1865

 

Indian School of Calcutta:- Students seated on mats around their master, working on slates- 1859

Nandi bull in a courtyard of a temple in Benares. – 1864

 

Akal Bunga (‘timeless house’) in the Sikhs’ Golden Temple at Amritsar- 1864

 

Water wheel being turned by two bullocks, Amritsar- 1864

 

A hill village near Simla in the Himalayas. – 1860

 

Taj Mahal, the monument as seen from the garden, with Europeans and malis (gardeners) in the foreground and flowerpots- 1864

 

Gateway of the Buddhist shrine- Sanchi Stupa- 1865

Check out our Storefront on Amazon.in (link given bleow) to buy and view more of William Carpenter and William Simpsons artworks. Art prints of these rare watercolors are available on canvas and archival paper.

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