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

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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

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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

Art for Love

Artists have drawn inspiration from a variety of sources most common being the experience of love. Listed below are some of the most beautiful and expressive paintings made by Indian master artists in different styles and genre dedicated to love and relationships.

Sohni Mahiwal by Sobha Singh:
When we talk about star crossed lovers, Sohni Mehiwa’s romance is the first love legend that comes to our mind. One of the greatest Indian artists of twentieth century Sobha Singhs’ painting depicts the clandestine rendezvous of the tragic lovers. Mahiwal’s tenderly embraces Sohni drenched with water, seemingly tired after cross the river.

Sohni mahiwal

 

Ardhanarishvara in Tibetan Thangka Style:
Lord Shiva’s love for his consort Parvati is symbolized as Ardhanarishvara, the composition depicts his half-body being shared by his spouse. In Shiva Purana, Shiva preaches to Parvati that she resides with him, embracing her ‘limb-to-limb’, that’s how Ardhanarishvara is formed. 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

 

Radha Krishna series by Abdur Rahman Chughtai:
Abdur Chughtai is revered for his portrayal of legends, folklore and history of the Indo-Islamic world. His most recognizable artworks are the Radha Krishna series made in watercolours, the paintings showcases the couples tender and passionate love in the most animated and captivating manner. The artworks reflects the characteristics of his unique technique called Chughtai style- dreamy eyes, graceful figures with seductive nuances and saturated with passionate mood.

Radha Krishna

 

Mother Teresa Series by M. F. Hussain:
The cubist artist M. F. Hussain known as the “Picasso of India” made a memorable and touching series illustrating the love and compassion Mother Teresas had for the impoverished and the dying. The creativity and originality of the art works is remarkable, faceless figures with just the blue border of her attire were suggestive enough of her appearance. The composition successfully personifies motherhood, selfless love and limitless affection, creatively projected in an abstract form.

Mother Teresa

 

Shakuntala Dushyanta by Kalipada Ghoshal:
The artwork by Bengali master artist Kalipada Ghoshal depicts the tale of ‘love at first sight’ of Dushyanta and Shakuntala. In the artwork Dushyanta lovingly courts Shakuntala against a gentle backdrop, the intimate moment heightens the paintings theme of love and beauty. The dramatic love story of separation and union of this mythical couple from Mahabharat had a ‘happily ever after ending.

Dushmanta Shakuntala

 

Miniature paintings from Geeta Govinda:
Gita Govinda, a devotional song composed by Jayadeva (12th century poet), describes the divine love of Radha and Krishna. The poet elaborates on how both of them are vulnerable victims of an irrepressible passion. These fascinating miniature paintings made to represent this mini-epic beautifully illustrate the celestial couples’ spiritual love and blissful union.

Geetagovinda

 

Shah Jahan and Jahanara by Mohanlal Soni:
This emotion stirring painting of ailing Shah Jahan with his daughter Jahanara epitomizes the love between a father and his daughter. Jahanara willingly chose to join her father in imprisonment at the Agra Fort, where she devoted herself to his care until his death. The painting shows Shah Jahan gazing longingly at Taj Mahal in the background while a concerned Jahanara lovingly comforts him with warmth and compassion.

Jahan & Jahanara

 

Mother and Child series by Jamini Roy:
Jamini Roy, the most famous pupils of Abanindranath Tagore, is remembered today for the simplicity of his artworks, mainly capturing the life of the folk people. His most popular paintings have been the ‘Mother and Child’ series which followed his distinctive technique of bold outlines, flat colors and wide-eyed stylized figures. He effortlessly captured the essence of mothers love with a straightforward and simple approach.

Jamini Roy (1887-1972), Mother and Child, Tempera on Canvas, 35.7x73 cm, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi

 

Meera Bai Pines for Her Krishna by Vasudeo Kamath:
This exquisite painting depicts Meera Bai the mystic poet, longing for Krishnas’ image. To accomplish that, she tries to replica his appearance by painting her face dark and complements it with a peacock feather to match his manifestation at best. Vasudeo Kamath manages to capture the spiritual bliss and ecstasy Meera Bai experiences on seeing her reflection.

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Urvashi Pururavas and Savitri Satyavan by Raja Ravi Varma:
These lesser known paintings of the celebrated Indian artist Raja Ravi Varma depict the epic love stories of two mythical couples- Urvashi Pururavas and Savitri Satyavan. The love story of the beautiful apsara Urvashi and Pururavas ends tragically after she bears him a child, the reason was a curse given by sage Bharat- “ the day your son and lover meet, you will have to return to heaven.” The painting shows Urvashi leaving a mournful Pururavas.

Savitri and Satyavan however had a ‘happily ever after’ ending, the artwork shows the scene when Lord Yama the god of Death, comes to claim the soul of Satyavan. Eventually, impressed by Savitri’s dedication and purity, Lord Yama grants life to Satyavan’s.

Raja Ravi Varma

Radha’s many Avatars

Radha’s divine love for Krishna has inspired and influenced Indian art in all forms. In spite of these copious creative manifestations, Her avatar as such has no precision, there are numerous version’s to Her character in Indian literature and art. The number of role’s assigned to Her are astonishing- a devotional milkmaid, personification of Kundalini shakti, Mother nature (Prakriti), Supreme Goddess (Devi), Krishna’s favorite gopi and more.

 

Gita Govinda, a devotional song composed by Jayadeva (12th century poet), illustrates Radha as the central character. The poet elaborates on how Her love has unmanageable control on Lord Krishna, who is miserable in Radha’s absence. Both of them are vulnerable victims of an irrepressible passion. Jayadeva highlights Radha’s jealousy over Krishna’s flirtatious nature, who goes astray very easily. Many experts believe that the mini-epic metaphorically describes how an individual soul separates from the Supreme soul but eventually they have a blissful union.

Jayadeva_worshipping_OcherArtBlog 2

Jayadeva worshiping Radha and Krishna

 

Sur Das the blind saint of 15th century, in his masterpiece Sur-Sagar personifies Radha as a human soul in love with the Creator. Her thoughts, affection and distress are described with elaborate details starting from childhood. However unlike Jayadeva, Radha’s love as expressed by Sur Das has more bhakti and devotion than passion.

Surdas OcherArtBlog

Tansen (left) watches as Sur Das (Center) and Haridas (right) sing their Devotional song.

 

Rupa Goswami a 16th century poet and philosopher, portrayed Radha as a married women who’s passionate and devotional love for Krishna is far more spiritual than the other gopi’s. For Rupa she is not just a devotee with exceeding affection, he projects Her as a celestial Shakti in form of a human being, who ought to be worshiped alongside Lord Krishna. In his writings he even compared Vishnu’s 10 incarnations to Radharani’s body parts.

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Rupa Goswami (source: theharekrishnamovement.org)

 

Radha’s appearance is not just limited to literature, most extraordinary manifestation is Chaitanya Mahaprabhu himself, a notable saint from 16th century who is considered by his devotees as the reincarnation of Radha or by some as ‘Krishna in union with Radha’. The purity and intensity of Chaitanya’s love for Krishna is said to have been parallel to that of Radharani. His sudden divine experiences and blissful transformations were termed as- Mahaprabhu possessed by Radha’s moods.

mahaprabhu_caitanya in trance OcherArtBlog 2

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in trance

 

Brahma Vaivarta Purana, (one of the eighteen Puranas), describes Her as the Goddess Shakti (Rasesvari) in the eternal abode and as Krishna’s wife in human form (Radha). As per the scripture, unification of the celestial couple created the universe. When they incarnated as Krishna and Radha, Lord Brahma performs a secret marriage for the pair. There are many other manifestations of Radhas in our ancient scriptures, epics, literature, and art, each has its own significance. Ultimately the only common factor in all the appearances has been Her limitless Love for Krishna which has been used as an expression for blissful devotional.