Robert Linrothe

Anxious Fascination: Yogis in Mughal, Company, and Raj-Period Paintings and Photographs

The Mughals and the British, who ruled most of South Asia for several centuries, were in equal measure outsiders to those lands. They saw its natural and social environments as foreign and exotic and developed certain overlapping fascinations. One of these was with Yogis, naked ash-covered Sadhus with dreadlocks who were perceived as having magical powers. In Indian society, Yogis derived religious and even political authority from asceticism. The reactions of the Mughal and British elites to these charismatic renouncers mingled attraction, skepticism, and unease with a tinge of fear. The mixed responses they generated surfaced in paintings and photography. In this talk, I will explore the enduring stereotype of the Yogi as perpetuated in elite arts and photographs used variously for political surveying, missionary work, souvenirs, and for the tourist market. I will also look at cases where the photographer’s gaze was returned when the making of a photograph turns from being a moment of objectification by these outsiders to that of subjective self-expression on the part of the Yogi.

Dr. Linrothe is an art historian (Ph.D., Chicago, 1992), who has worked extensively on Buddhist and Himalayan art. His book Holy Madness (on traditions of 84 Siddhas) has attracted much scholarly attention. Last year he was at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, is teaching at Skidmore College presently, and will join Northwestern University’s Art History Department in January 2010. His research interests include representations of yogis and sadhus in 19th/20th-century photographs and in earlier painting.

This lecture is co-sponsored by the University Lectures Committee and the Department of Art History.