Around 1600, a dramatic shift took place in Mughal art. The Mughal emperors of India were the most powerful monarchs of their day—at the beginning of the seventeenth century, they ruled over a hundred million subjects, five times the number administered by their only rivals, the Ottomans. Much of the painting that took place in the ateliers of the first Mughal emperors was effectively dynastic propaganda, and gloried in the Mughals’ pomp and prestige. Illustrated copies were produced of the diaries of Babur, the conqueror who first brought the Muslim dynasty of the Mughal emperors to India in 1526, as well as exquisite paintings illustrating every significant episode in the biography of his grandson, Akbar.
Then, quite suddenly, at this moment of imperial climax, a young Hindu khanazad (or “palace-born”) prodigy named Govardhan began painting images of a sort that had never been seen before in Mughal art. They were not pictures of battles or court receptions. Instead they were closely observed portraits of holy men performing yogic asanas or exercises that aimed to focus the mind and achieve spiritual liberation and transcendence. The results of Govardhan’s experiments in painting—along with a superbly curated selection of several hundred other images from the history of yoga—were recently on view in “Yoga: The Art of Transformation,”a remarkable exhibition at the Freer and Sackler galleries in Washington, D.C., which will travel next to San Francisco and Cleveland.