January 11, 2014

Saturday, January 11, 2014 - , No comments

Personal Perspective: The Sackler Gallery exhibit "Yoga: The Art of Transformation" unites three powerful yogini sculptures

The Freer and Sackler Galleries of Art in Washington DC, have put together an exhibition on yoga as a tantric practice. Padma Kaimal is a consultant on which sculptures reunite with the Sackler Gallery’s Kanchipuram yogini. The exhibition will close January 26, 2014.

by Kait Murphy, ARCA ‘11

As we learned last May about Padma Kaimal’s book Scattered Goddesses: Travels with the Yoginis there were efforts underway to educate and reunite known Yogini sculptures. Despite their storied cultural histories and theft, these sculptures suggest a much deeper mystery when placed together.

It was a great pleasure to recently meet up with Padma Kaimal, professor of art and art history and Asian studies at Colgate University, at the Sackler Gallery’s Yoga: The Art of Transformation exhibit in Washington DC. It was here that three 10th century sculptures from a lost temple in South India were placed together up on pedestals. The "Art of Transformation" exhibit included yoginis from the Sackler gallery, Detroit Institute of Arts, and Minneapolis Institute of Arts. 

This reunion brought together yoginis that were looted and dispersed sometime between the 10th c -19th c. Visually, the stone material and size of the yoginis created the cohesion necessary to connect the pieces together and a deeper inspection revealed traces of red paint in varying hues deep in the crevices of the relief. These three sculptures were virtually intact except for a few limbs believed to have been hacked off to censor the intimidating tantric symbols.  Each yogini has its own powerful Shakti or feminine power and is uniquely and quite beautifully carved.  The yoginis are seated with legs crossed and the left arm resting on a knee and holding a skull cup when the arm is still intact.  There are individual markings specific to each sculpture as well as objects reflecting their Shakti, which include detailed jewelry with animals such as serpents.  An animal is also carved into the front of the base just under the seated figure representative of that specific yogini.

To get a glimpse into the world of the Yoginis and to understand a bit about their original context, we sat on the floor in front of the figures. This experience was far different than when visiting the single Sackler yogini sculpture months earlier. Each of the sculptures’ gazes focused on us as sitters or devotees. It was a powerful realization that if the known 19 were together, or even the original 64, this conversation would be intensified and quite possibly further unlock the mystery of these goddesses and their Tantric practices.

These known sculptures represent only a fraction of the original temple figures. What happened to the rest of the yoginis? Were they also looted to safety? Are they in private homes? Gone forever? The site of the long lost temple in Kanchipuram, India exists in a completely new context so our collective cultural history rests in the power of these unified yoginis. Despite the temporary reunion of these three figures, scholarship is pivotal in unlocking the mysteries surrounding the sculptures so we can preserve the cultural history and learn more about the individual pieces and where they have been for 1,000 years.