Category Archives: South Asian and Himalayan Art

Danielle Probst: From Child’s Pose to Yoga Messenger

Danielle Probst

Danielle Probst

Danielle Probst is marketing manager for River’s Edge Yoga studio in Alexandria and Virginia Yoga Week. In her role as Yoga Messenger, Danielle is helping to get the word out about our upcoming exhibition, Yoga: Art of Transformation.

As a native Washingtonian, I’ve spent many hours in museums, first as a child with the ubiquitous school tour, then, more memorably, as a teen. Back in the days before teens lived on their cell phones, I was a museum hound. My mother, a single parent, was more than willing to send me to this “Mall” to wander for hours. With a Metro farecard and a sandwich in my bag, the Freer|Sackler was among my favorite haunts. I recall stepping into the cool, quiet galleries, a refuge from the jungle-grade humidity of a Washington August.

What drew me in first was an interest in India. Small paintings, like pages from fantastic, magical books, lay upright in glass cases. These exquisite pictures amazed me with their vibrant colors, gold leaf, and miniature brushstrokes a hair’s breadth wide, bringing to life sari-garbed girls by the river being wooed by a playful young man with blue skin. These tiny worlds frozen on paper sucked me in and I was transported, and hooked.

The terrifying faces of wrathful deities on giant thangkas held me in awe. Gnashing teeth, blood dripping from swords, eyes rolling in wrath—I could almost feel the hellfire they walked in. From the secret mathematics of Durga’s Triangle to Lakshmi’s glittering coins, each room held objects of wonder. Every Buddha and yogini thrilled me.

Not surprisingly, I ended up in art school. In my years of traveling and study I spent many hours visiting Asian art in cities such as Chicago, London, and Berlin. As the wheel of my life spun, I returned again and again to read Buddhist texts, groove to the sounds of Karsh Kale and Midival Punditz, and learn how to make my own paneer and naan.

When I heard about the exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation, I knew I’d be back to visit my friends—those magical manuscript pages at the Freer|Sackler—that to this day can whisper their secrets to me.

Art in its many forms is, to my mind, the purest expression of the divine. Whether it is a simple rangoli created by a housewife on her front steps or the purest tone of voices joined in chant, we can’t help but express our connection with the universe.
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Today is the last day to contribute to the crowdfunding campaign for Yoga: The Art of Transformation. Donate to “Together We’re One” or email us at yoga@si.edu to see how you can get involved.

Heels Over Head: When Charles Lang Freer Met Swami Vivekananda

Poster (color lithograph), copy of original from Goes Lithograph Company, Chicago Vedanta Society of Northern California, Harrison series, 1893, V22

Poster (color lithograph), copy of original from Goes Lithograph Company, Chicago
Vedanta Society of Northern California, Harrison series, 1893, V22


Yoga: The Art of Transformation, the world’s first exhibition on the art of yoga, will open at the Freer|Sackler in October. Bento had a chance to speak to exhibition curator Debra Diamond about an 1894 meeting between museum founder Charles Lang Freer and Swami Vivekananda, a key figure in bringing Indian philosophies about yoga to the West.

Bento: Did Charles Lang Freer know about yoga?

Debra Diamond: Probably. Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), the first truly influential teacher of yoga to come to the United States, arrived in Detroit in 1894 to give talks at local churches and a synagogue. Freer hosted a dinner for him at his home on Ferry Street.

Bento: Why was Swami Vivekananda in the United States?

DD: He came to participate in the World’s Parliament of Religions that was part of the Chicago World’s Fair—the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Well spoken, charismatic, and exotic in his orange robes, Swami Vivekananda was a huge hit. He introduced a rational and ecumenical Hinduism that was very appealing to Westerners interested in Eastern spiritual and religious traditions. His talks were so popular that the organizers scheduled them for the end of the day, so the auditorium wouldn’t empty out in the afternoons. Although Emerson knew of Indian philosophy and Thoreau had said, “At times, even I am a yogi,” it was really Swami Vivekananda who made yoga well known in the United States.

Bento: Why do you think Freer was intrigued?

DD: Freer had a cosmopolitan worldview, and he was part of a social and intellectual sphere that was interested in spirituality and Asian cultures. Senator Thomas W. Palmer, who would become the first president of the Detroit Museum of the Arts [now the Detroit Institute of the Arts], lived down the street from Freer. Palmer served as president of the Fair and had Swami Vivekananda stay with him in his home.

Bento: What did Freer think of Swami Vivekananda?

DD: We don’t have any records of Freer’s response; his terse diary entries don’t mention the event. However, his papers include a receipt for a donation of $250. This suggests Freer may have found Swami Vivekananda’s message of a universal spirit that transcends religious differences compatible with his conception of art. Freer believed that modern and ancient masterpieces of art were “harmonious in spiritual suggestion,” “universal,” and had the power “to elevate the human mind.”

Bento: Could Swami Vivekananda have inspired Freer’s trip to India the following year?

DD: Maybe he was inspired. Maybe he got travel tips! But we really don’t know if there is a connection. Freer’s diaries are pretty sparse at this time.

Bento: Are there principles in Swami Vivekananda’s teachings that we would recognize today?

DD: Swami Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga is a foundational work in the dissemination of yoga across the world. In the book, Vivekananda writes that “Raga Yoga…never asks the question of what our religion is. We are human beings, that is sufficient” (Raja Yoga, 1896). His commentary on (and translation of) the aṣṭāṅga (eight-limb) yoga section of Patañjali’s Yogasūtras focuses on its potential for spiritual growth. All of these things color modern discourses about yoga. Swami Vivekananda was probably the first to really convey the message that yoga was something that Americans could do. We recognize that today, and it’s taken for granted, but it was not previously. For more on Swami Vivekananda’s role in yoga history—including why he wasn’t interested in the postures of hatha yoga that we know so well today—come see the exhibition in October!

Want to contribute to the Yoga exhibition? Donate to our “Together We’re One” crowdfunding campaign or email us at yoga@si.edu to see how you can get involved.

The Power of Koringa

Koringa, a magicienne of the 1930s, creatively reimagined yogic referents to enhance the allure of her act

Koringa, a magicienne of the 1930s, creatively reimagined yogic referents to enhance the allure of her act.

Hetty Lipscomb is development writer and stewardship manager at Freer|Sackler.

It takes some kind of woman to take on a crocodile. Look magazine’s cover from September 1937 shows Koringa, the beautiful mystic, crouched low, staring down her adversary. She positions her arms like the jaws of the croc, only wider to intimidate him. A caste mark on her forehead glows red like a third eye, suggesting hypnotic powers.

She claimed to be from India, orphaned at the age of three and raised by fakirs who taught her magic so that she could charm snakes, read minds, or walk on beds of shattered glass. In truth, she was Renée Bernard (1913–1976) a dancer from Bordeaux, who was a member of a traveling circus, a popular entertainment in France from the 19th century on. Bernard’s main act was a quick-footed dance on a ladder made of sword blades. Her performance impressed the Mills Brothers of England, who immediately engaged her as a star attraction of Bertram Mills‘ Circus and Menagerie.

Reflecting the public’s romanticized fascination with India, Bernard and the Mills Brothers created the persona of Koringa, “The Only Female Fakir in the World.” A striking woman, Bernard heightened her exotic look with “Orientalist” costumes—short leopard-print dresses or pantaloons with sequined tops—and a dramatic, auerole hairstyle. She dusted her body with a green-tinged powder before performances to give her a glowing, otherworldly appearance. A poster for Mills Circus in the Sackler’s upcoming exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation shows Koringa in green, posed like the Look cover only surrounded by snakes as well as crocodiles. Koringa remained with the Mills Brothers through the 1960s, touring England, France, and South Africa.

A fierce, 10th century yogini goddess in the collection of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, S1987.905

A fierce, 10th-century yogini goddess in the collection of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, S1987.905

Today, we may see Koringa as a product of a colonialist fantasy of India and “the exotic woman.” But Koringa’s attributes of the crocodile and snake also appear on a 10th-century sculpture of a yogini goddess in the Sackler’s collections. One of a cult of goddesses worshiped in a temple at Tamil Nadu in Kaveripakkam, south India, the yogini came to the aid of the faithful and helped them achieve worldly powers and success. Renée Bernard’s Koringa can be interpreted as an homage to these ancient goddesses, who in turn helped her achieve fame and fortune.

Want to contribute to the Yoga exhibition? Donate to our “Together We’re One” crowdfunding campaign or email us at yoga@si.edu to see how you can get involved.

Book Yoga: The Other Yoga Boom

Curator Debra Diamond preparing presentation on “The Roots of Yoga” at Jaipur Literary Festival, January 24, 2013. Left to right: Debra Diamond, David Gordon White, Birad Rajaram Yajnik, Mark Singleton, Sir James Mallinson (photo by Neil Greentree)

Curator Debra Diamond preparing presentation on “The Roots of Yoga” at Jaipur Literary Festival, January 24, 2013.
Left to right: Debra Diamond, David Gordon White, Birad Rajaram Yajnik, Mark Singleton, Sir James Mallinson
(photo by Neil Greentree)

Cathryn Keller, senior advisor and producer for external affairs, is writing a book on yoga in Europe during World War II.

Summer is the ideal time to add some yoga reading to your practice. Review your yoga summer reading list below, and read on for details about what you’ll learn.

Alongside the global yoga boom, there’s been an exciting explosion of insights into yoga’s past and present. Scholars are tracing yoga’s origins, meanings, and changes through history, anthropology, sociology, and religious studies—and now, for Yoga: The Art of Transformation, through art history and visual culture. Before the exhibition opens on October 19, we can delve into fascinating reads by authors who are contributing to its catalogue—the first art book to provide a visual context for contemporary yoga—and who will share new research at the Freer|Sackler’s public symposium in November.

As the body is central to both yoga and Indian art, Mark Singleton’s fascinating and accessible Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice is a great place to start. For lighter reading, check out this interview with Singleton and catalogue author James Mallinson, and Modern Yoga Research, a website Singleton maintains with his teacher Elizabeth De Michelis and emerging scholar Suzanne Newcombe.

Yoga is an embodied practice, a means to transcend physical and metaphysical suffering. We can preview the themes of nationalism, health and the body in South Asia, in the forthcoming catalogue essay on “Metaphysical Fitness” by Joseph S. Alter, an anthropologist of medicine who was born in India, in his book Yoga in Modern India: The Body Between Philosophy and Science.

The exhibition will provide new views of places where yoga has been practiced, portrayed, and researched, from medieval temples to the caves and forest huts of ascetics to early twentieth-century gyms and clinics. Worth contemplating: the yogic landscapes in curator Debra Diamond’s award-winning Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur and the temple sculptures in her teacher Vidya Dehejia‘s many books on Indian art.

You can also visit the Freer|Sackler this summer to preview one of the treasures that will be on view in the exhibition. Watch Diamond interpret its representation of the paradox of the yoga body in our latest video.

On the beach or on the way to work, yoga reading is a relaxing and stimulating way to prepare for Yoga: The Art of Transformation.

Yoga Summer Reading List

Joseph Alter, Yoga in Modern India: The Body Between Philosophy and Science (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004)

Vidya Dehejia, The Body Adorned: Sacred and Profane in Indian Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009)

Debra Diamond (editor), Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur (London: Thames and Hudson, 2010)

James Mallinson (translator), The Shiva Samhita: A Critical Edition and An English Translation (Woodstock, NY: yogavidya.com, 2007)

Elizabeth de Michelis, A History of Modern Yoga: Patañjali and Western Esotericism (London: Continuum, 2004)

Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)

David Gordon White (editor), Yoga in Practice (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012)

Birad Rajaram Yajnik, The Great Indian Yoga Masters, Tracing 2500 Years of Yoga (Hyderabad, India: Visual Quest Books, 2009)

Want to contribute to the exhibition? Donate to our “Together We’re One” crowdfunding campaign or email us at yoga@si.edu to see how you can get involved.

Putting Our Heads Together to Make Yoga History

Vishvarupa

Krishna Vishvarupa, ca. 1740, India; Catherine and Ralph Benkaim Collection

A week ago today we kicked off Together We’re One, our Razoo crowdfunding campaign to support Yoga: The Art of Transformation, the world’s first exhibition of yogic art. Opening this October at the Sackler, Yoga will include temple sculptures, devotional icons, and vibrant manuscripts, as well as early-modern photographs, books, and films.

Because of yoga’s broad appeal, we thought this was the perfect opportunity to launch a crowdfunding campaign, enabling lots of people to get involved in helping us make yoga history.

The image we’ve chosen for the campaign was painted in the eighteenth century, but we felt like it was speaking to us today. The deity Krishna is known as “Master of Yoga” in the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu text, when he reveals his infinite cosmic form (Vishvarupa), which encompasses all time, space, and beings. An artist from the Himalayan foothills of India evoked the vast and proliferating universe by depicting Krishna with sixty multicolored heads and forty-four pinwheeling arms.

Everyone on the Razoo team loved this image for the campaign because it evokes a community working together. Debra Diamond, curator of the exhibition, also recommended this image because one of yoga’s most powerful transformations is realizing that the self and the universe are one.

Learn more about the campaign, and email us at yoga@si.edu to see how you can get involved!

Transformation and the Art of Yoga

Folio 6B from a Gulshan; opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin; ELS2013.1.174

Folio 6B from a Gulshan; opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin; ELS2013.1.174

Elizabeth Axelson, Siobhan Donnelly, and Natalie Creamer are interns in the office of public affairs and marketing at Freer|Sackler.

On May 29, we celebrated the launch of our first crowdfunding campaign, a month-long effort to support Yoga: The Art of Transformation, the world’s first exhibition on yogic art. During the event, we talked to guests about their passion for yoga and what transformation means to them.

Among those in attendance was Valerie Grange, cofounder and codirector of DC’s Buddha B Yoga Center. Adorned in crystals and a fuchsia sari—recently purchased by the yogini on a trip to India—Grange told us, “Transformation in the context of yoga is the idea of evolving on a spiritual and physical level.”

Valerie Grange of DC's Buddha B Yoga Center.

Valerie Grange of DC’s Buddha B Yoga Center

Gurumeet and Gurujotsingth Khalsa teach, practice, and partake of the yoga lifestyle at the Guru Ram Das Ashram in Herndon, Virginia. Dressed in all white and wearing turbans, the couple discussed their long history with yoga. Gurumeet noted that their practice began by reading books and meeting with a teacher. Today, she explained, the couple practices “Kundalini yoga and the Sikh way of life.” While many people think of yoga as an exercise featuring postures, the Khalsas were quick to point out that “yoga is more than just posture—posture is only one-eighth” of the equation. While postures, also known as asanas, are part of yoga, they are the least important part, according to the Khalsas. “Yoga means ‘union’ and requires discipline,” noted Gurumeet. “We love all kinds of yoga.”

Gurumeet and Gurujotsingth Khalsa with exhibition curator, Debra Diamond.

Gurumeet and Gurujotsingth Khalsa with exhibition curator Debra Diamond

Ceren Ozer, a member of the Freer|Sackler’s Silk Road Society, brought along a few of her friends to the launch party. When we asked why she practiced yoga, Ceren explained, “It’s a way to get relaxed and centered. It’s not only the act of us doing sun salutations. Physical activities are a way for us to be prepared for meditation. In a given day, I try to become centered if I get too … all over the place [by] breathing and being aware of my emotions.”

Ceren Ozer, a member of the Silk Road Society at right with a friend

Ceren Ozer (right), a member of the Silk Road Society, with a friend

Finally, we asked Sara VanderGoot, cofounder and owner of the local Mind the Mat Pilates & Yoga studios, what transformation meant to her. Her definition, she answered, is “being present in every moment and knowing that we are always in transformation.” As someone very involved with yoga, she said she was excited that the exhibition will expose the public to the history and other aspects of yoga.

Sara VanderGoot (left), cofounder and studio owner of Mind the Mat Pilates and Yoga.

Sara VanderGoot (left), cofounder and owner of Mind the Mat Pilates & Yoga

Visit our website to learn more about the campaign, or email us at yoga@si.edu to see how you can get involved.

Namaste,
Lizzy, Siobhan, and Natalie

Together We’re One: Crowdfunding our Yoga Exhibition

Vishvarupa (detail) from the exhibition, Yoga: The Art of Transformation

Vishvarupa (detail) from the exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation

Miranda Gale is project manager of Together We’re One.

On Wednesday, May 29, the Freer|Sackler will launch the Smithsonian’s first major crowdfunding campaign, “Together we’re one.” The campaign will support Yoga: The Art of Transformation, the world’s first exhibition on yogic art, opening this October at the Sackler Gallery. You may have read about the campaign in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Washington City Paper, or DCist, or perhaps heard about it on NBC Washington—but what exactly is “Together we’re one,” and why did we choose to launch the campaign in the first place? Here are the answers to our most frequently asked questions as we prepare to make yoga history over the next five weeks.

Why crowdfunding?
We’re trying a new (to us, at least!) and innovative fundraising approach worthy of a new and innovative exhibition. Crowdfunding is not too different from our other fundraising efforts; we’re just asking more people for a smaller amount of money, rather than asking a few people or corporations for a large amount of money. Since so many people practice and are enthusiastic about yoga, we’re choosing a format that allows everyone to get involved, not just those who have the means to make large donations.

Why does the Smithsonian need money? Don’t our taxes fund the museums?

While federal taxpayer funding covers some of our costs (mostly operating costs, such as keeping the galleries clean and the lights on), private and public support—whether from donors, sponsors, or grants—cover the majority of expenses related to exhibitions and programming. We rely on public and private support to offer our programs and exhibitions free of charge to the public. Private and public support for the Yoga exhibition will help us create videos, publications, and pamphlets; print catalogs (and sell them for a much more reasonable price than through a bookstore!); offer yoga classes during the exhibition, and more.

The cost of putting on a major exhibition like this one is high—but not unusual for the Freer|Sackler. It is simply necessary for keeping the artwork and visitors safe and ensuring a quality experience for both.

How will my money be used?
Yoga: The Art of Transformation, a longtime labor of love for the Freer|Sackler, will bring more than 130 artworks from around the world to Washington, DC. The associated costs are high. All donations will fund the unexciting but expensive logistics (shipping, mounting, lighting, paint, cases, labels), plus the fun aspects that allow us to better share the exhibition’s content with the public: workshops for adults and families, yoga classes in the exhibit space, a yoga festival, pamphlets and other takeaway materials, honorariums for speakers and teachers, a comprehensive website, and videos. It will also support a public symposium that will bring international art and yoga scholars to DC, and the production of a full-color exhibition catalog, the first on yogic art.

Visit our website to learn more about the campaign, or email us at yoga@si.edu to see how you can get involved.

Namaste!

Diwali: The Festival of Lights

Celebrating Diwali in Mumbai.

F|S photographer Neil Greentree is in India and captured this photo of Diwali festivities in the Juhu section of Mumbai. Diwali, the festival of lights, is a five-day celebration; its name is derived from Deepavali, meaning “row of lamps.” The festival celebrates the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. During the celebration, lamps are lit and houses are cleaned in honor of the goddess Lakshmi. Marigold flowers are woven into garlands. It’s a time to wear new clothes and share sweets with friends and families. Firecrackers are also part of the celebration, helping to drive away evil spirits. As Neil has reported, given how loud it was until 3 am in Mumbai the other night, the score must remain firecrackers 1, evil spirits 0.

Food for Thought: Melons, Mangoes, and Mughals

In “Babur Receives a Courtier,” by Farrukh Beg, the emperor is seen with a bounty of melons before him.
(opaque watercolor and gold on paper, S1986.230)

Although our recent exhibition Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran has now closed, many of the images can be viewed in great detail online. Michael Rendelmann, curatorial intern at Freer|Sackler, takes a look at the rich Mughal paintings in terms of a different kind of palate.

Throughout the reign of the Mughals, fruit occupied a special place in court culture as well as on the court’s table. Fruit served not only as a foodstuff, but also as an omnipresent statement of who the Mughals were and how they viewed their relationship with their Indian subjects. Fruit was an edible yardstick of civilization, the cultivation and appreciation of which was a key indication of civilized culture.

Mughal elites famously spent lavishly to grow or import exquisite fruits. Gifts of fruit were a matter of protocol in the upper echelons of Mughal society, and formed an unspoken language of diplomacy. While the Mughal love of fruit remained constant, the varieties consumed and the status ascribed to them tell the story of how a dynasty that emerged in Central Asia became Indian.

Babur, the first Mughal emperor, was raised on a Central Asian diet that placed tremendous emphasis on the many fruits that passed through the region. In the markets of Samarkand one could purchase sweet apples, lush melons, and a bounty of other fruits from the region’s orchards. Above all other fruit, the melon was most prized by Babur’s people, for whom the fruit was synonymous with home.

While he was conquering northern India, Babur lamented the paucity of the fruit available in his new kingdom. He had melons of Central Asia rapidly transplanted in India, but during Babur’s lifetime, these had limited horticultural success. To the homesick Babur, the fruit was a means of connecting with his long-lost homeland; according to the emperor’s memoir, the Baburnama, he wept upon tasting one.

By the time Jahangir ascended to the Mughal throne, 75 years after the death of Babur, a great deal about the formerly nomadic conquerors had changed. The relatively austere fare of Babur’s day had given way to an exotic cuisine that drew from every corner of the vast Mughal Empire. Fruit still occupied a prized place at the table and in ceremonial exchanges, but the available produce had changed dramatically. While later Mughals looked to the fruits of their homeland as a nostalgic statement of their heritage, they were far removed from the nomads of Central Asia. Indeed, the melons over which Babur had wept were now forced to share the table with a variety of new produce, such as the Indian mango, for the favor of the court.

Jahangir may have been a descendant of Babur, but for him, Central Asia was only a story, a homeland to which he was a stranger. India was his home, and the mango, not the melon, his fruit of choice. While Babur had dismissed the mango, Jahangir praised it, declaring that “notwithstanding the sweetness of the Kabul fruits, not one of them has, to my taste, the flavor of the mango.”

In this painting, “Jahangir Entertains Shah Abbas,” the dish to Jahangir’s left bears traditional Central Asian fruits such as apples, grapes, and a melon. The dish to Jahangir’s right bears more exotic fruits such as oranges, lemons, pineapple, bananas, and of course, mangoes. (F1942.16a)

The bounty of fruits arrayed before Jahangir in the image above reveals a great deal about the trajectory of Mughal court culture. Babur and his melons tell the story of a conquering warrior ruling over an alien land. Babur drew comfort from seeking to replicate the flavors of home, to which he always looked back longingly. Conversely, the cosmopolitan Jahangir had truly “gone native” in his new homeland of India. His love of the exotic and the new told the story of a new Mughal, no longer at home riding across the plains of Central Asia, but dining on the riches of the empire in the lush gardens of India.

Emperors and Interns: Behind the Scenes of Worlds within Worlds

Book cover from a volume of the Gulshan Album, painted with colors and gold and lacquered, India, F1999.2a-b

Najiba H. Choudhury interned in the curatorial department and assisted with Worlds within Worlds; she now works in the registrar’s office but continues to do research for Yoga: The Art of Transformation, opening in 2013. Mekala Krishnan is a curatorial researcher working on the yoga exhibition.

Mekala Krishnan: Tell us about your work at F|S. Maybe describe your typical day in the curatorial department.

Najiba Choudhury: I don’t think there is a typical day for a curatorial intern. There were weeks when I was doing only pure research. You know: scouring for material, poring over books, and writing reports on objects for an upcoming exhibition. Then there is the usual scanning, xeroxing, editing images, and putting together PowerPoint presentations. I was also able to assist my supervisor, curator Debra Diamond, on the Worlds within Worlds exhibition. For a while I was just reading multiple rounds of the label texts for the exhibition, proofreading, and fact-checking. The nature of the work varies wildly, depending on the needs of the department at that moment. You also get to attend talks, events, and storage visits at the Freer and Sackler.

MK: Are there aspects of curatorial work that you hadn’t expected coming in?

NC: The public aspect of a curator’s job surprised me. I hadn’t realized that a BIG part of being a curator is interacting with people. This includes not only communicating with multiple departments within the museums but also with the public. You have to keep in touch with scholars in your field and museum professionals from the other institutions, cultivate relationships with donors and friends of the museums, and talk to the press. Then, obviously, curators have to give exhibition tours and other talks for the general public. It’s a lot!

MK: What was your favorite part of working on Worlds within Worlds?

NC: First of all, it was an amazing learning experience to observe the whole process of putting together an exhibition; so many different departments are involved in the process. It truly is a team effort. But I have to say, the most exciting part for me was going into storage and the conservation labs and just looking at the objects really closely, and listening to the curators and various experts talk about the pieces, discussing their details. It’s almost like going to a jam session. I mean, there have been so many moments when we discovered something new just by looking at art objects together, discussing our thoughts, and hashing out ideas.

MK: Tell us more about the process of putting together an exhibition. How are the paintings chosen?

NC: Worlds within Worlds presented an unique situation in that the exhibition is in honor of the revised and expanded edition of Milo Cleveland Beach’s book The Imperial Image, which presents the Mughal collection of the Freer and Sackler Galleries. So in some ways, we already had the source material in hand. But the exhibition curators, Debra Diamond and Massumeh Farhad, wanted to add another layer, highlighting the historical and stylistic connections between Persian and Mughal painting traditions. While selecting paintings for the three galleries, we not only tried to pick our strongest works, but also examples that demonstrate the distinct sensibilities of the three Mughal emperors (Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan), show certain shifts in style and subject based on the emperors’ demands and desires, and demonstrate the cosmopolitan nature of the Mughal courts between the 16th and 17th centuries. I think it’s quite clever the way each painting serves multiple purposes/narratives at the same time.

The literal answer to your question is: One day I came into Debra’s office and the whole floor was covered with printouts of images. She was pairing paintings together and trying to curve out narratives from them, in an attempt to plan a gallery wall. Later on, there were multiple rounds of editing, where Debra and Massumeh would sit together discuss the layout, often removing paintings from the object list and adding new ones.

MK: What can we learn about the Mughal empire from Worlds within Worlds? What new “worlds” did you discover?

NC: The Mughals were highly cosmopolitan. They were very much in touch with the Islamic world (both Persian and Ottoman empires) and also in contact with Europeans through official dignitaries and Jesuit missionaries who visited the Indian subcontinent. The Mughals were distinctly aware of local traditions in India, and were in constant dialogue with Hindus, Jains, and Muslims. This cross-cultural interaction and diversity is directly reflected in the paintings that were commissioned by the Mughal emperors, as seen in Worlds within Worlds.

As to discovering new worlds: Even since the exhibition went up, I’m discovering new things every day. Just the other day, I was touring the exhibition with two of my coworkers from the Islamic Department and one of them pointed out the face of a woman poking out of a window in the Noah’s Ark painting. You only see a tiny face, but there is no doubt that it’s a woman. It’s totally cool! I find that it’s moments like these that make working in a Mughal exhibition truly special. The paintings are filled with intricate details; they were meant to be held closely, like a book, and carefully studied. Hence, you are constantly finding new elements.

MK: You were involved with creating the website for the exhibition. Tell us about what you did.

NC: I was involved from the initial stages of creating the online component of Worlds within Worlds. I selected the Mughal paintings on which you can zoom in and click on specific parts for more details. I also helped shape content, which included writing some of the zoomify details, among other things.

MK: What is your favorite zoomify detail and why?

NC: I love the Gulshan album cover details. They are difficult to see even with magnifying glasses, but now people can visit the website to view them with very high degrees of magnification. I love the scene showing a group of Europeans dressed in their fineries, enjoying fine food and music. It’s very much about indulging your senses. And then to its left, there’s another detail showing two ascetics (yogis) scantily dressed who have renounced all forms of pleasure. The way it juxtaposes opposites, indulging your senses and austerity, all in the same page is really interesting to me.

There is another detail from the album cover where you have an adorable cheetah sitting on a horse, next to a royal hunter. I didn’t know before working on this project that a) you can tame a cheetah and b) on hunts the Mughals would take domesticated cheetahs as part of their royal entourage. Every time I see the cheetah, just casually sitting there, it cracks me up!

Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran closes on Sunday, September 16, 2012.