Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Rubin Museum of Art: Thomas Kelly's Sadhus

Photo © Thomas L. Kelly- Courtesy The Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art

I readily admit to having fallen out of love with the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in NYC. Perhaps it was on account of its email newsletters, which for the most part are not terribly informative and are designed to bring you in to see movies and such....giving me the impression that it has lost its way and had become over-commercialized. I know, museums have to make a living, but that's how I feel.

So walking by it yesterday morning, I was glad to see its exterior panels advertising Body Language: The Yogis of India & Nepal, an exhibition of color photographs by Thomas L. Kelly. It certainly seems to be interesting event I hope to visit soon.

I had no idea who Thomas L. Kelly was, but a quick search revealed that his resume is extensive. He first came to Nepal in 1978 as a USA Peace Corps Volunteer, and has since worked as a photo-activist, documenting the struggles of marginalized people and disappearing cultural traditions all over the world. He has been recording the lives of sex workers and the traditions of prostitution across South Asia, and worked for UNICEF, Save the Children Fund (USA), Aga Khan Foundation, amongst others, while his editorial work appeared in the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, National Geographic, and The Observer.

My view on sadhus is a jaundiced one. I've met countless of these vagabond ascetics over my many photo trips to India, and I'm of the view that most of them are charlatans. They are not much better than spongers...exploiting the generosity and gullibility of people who see them as holy men, which they are not. Even those I saw and met at the gigantic Maha Kumbh Mela, and certainly those in Pashupatinah (Kathmandu), are of that ilk. I did encounter real ascetics on a few occasions. One of these occasions was in Varanasi. Not on the ghats (always a magnet for flim-flam artists scamming tourists), but rather at an ashram for elderly sadhus. Here were men who had renounced their worldly belongings, and had opted to live in complete abnegation. Some had been doctors, engineers and accountants. In contrast to the ambulant pseudo sadhus, no stimulants of any kind were used at that ashram.

From a photographer's perspective, these pseudo-sadhus are colorful, exotic and photogenic...the weirder the better...and their way of life and their ganja habits make excellent photography. Whether they are true ascetics or not is not really relevant to us photographers...however it's worth knowing that who we photograph is not really what they purport to be.

The Rubin Museum's blurb on the exhibition has this: "Sadhus renounce worldly life, earthly possessions, and social obligations in order to devote their lives entirely to religious practice and the quest for spiritual enlightenment, making them an important part of the Hindu cultures of South Asia."

While the blurb is perhaps theoretically correct, only a fraction of sadhus really observe that sort of renunciation...but it makes for good reading.