Body Language: Photographs by Thomas Kelly at the Rubin

Thomas Kelly, Smoking Sadhu (2000)

Body Language: The Yogis of India and Nepal, up through July 4,  is a fascinating photograph exhibition in the lower level of the Rubin Museum of Art with prints by Thomas Kelly, an American photographer who has lived and worked in Nepal for many years. This collection of images documents wandering Hindu ascetics called Sadhus, and notably these men and woman paint their bodies in striking colors as they emulate their chosen deities. The Rubin Museum provides context on these remarkable looking people in these beautiful images of naked and painted people with matted hair. The exterior is just one way in which the Sadhu takes on the attribute of the deity he is emulating, which becomes the goal and process of his whole life.

Installation View of  Body Language, Rubin Museum of Art

Kelly writes on his website of sadhus in respect to his book Sadhus: The Great Renouncers:

In my adopted home of Kathmandu, some sadhus survive primarily off alms made from allowing tourists to photograph them. They are a spectacle and love to play their assigned role in the illusion or drama of society. Their masks are thickly painted on their naked bodies. Sadhus have formally abandoned conventional time; their world is dense with its own complex politics, social hierarchy, taboos and customs, often making access challenging.

Volatile and unpredictable, spontaneous photography of sadhus can actually be dangerous. You can easily be trampled or attacked if you immerse yourself in a naga baba procession after a mass Khumba Mela bathing. Or, without permission from a Mahant to work inside an Akhara, be accused of being a spy and have to answer to a Sadhu tribunal. There’s no such thing as achieving photographic acceptance within the Sadhu mandala. For me, photographing at ritual time is always the most dynamic and fluid. Once rapport has been established, a camera is tolerated, often with a sense of lila, or maya, play and illusion. It took repeated visits over many seasons and melas, to occasionally reach this level.

My initial inexplicable attraction to the Sadhu world was mostly visual. As a photographer, I loved how they allowed their bodies to become symbols of the sacred- from walking around naked to remind us of our naked selves, to wearing ash to remind us what are bodies become, to dreadlocks to remind us of our natural wild natures devoid of social convention. Their bodies were texts, which spoke volumes regarding sacred symbolism.

A sadhu’s body is a map of the Hindu universe, for the body is a microcosm of the cosmos. Like a canvas, the colour and painted symbols aid in purification, inspire, and remind of the timeless divine beyond body and form. The body is used to tell stories. As the sadhus works towards an egoless state, he becomes the very symbols he’s painted whether it be Shiva, Vishnu, or Rama, the colors refer to esoteric inner visions and possible alchemical states of consciousness. The real goal of a Sadhu is to achieve an attitude of non-attachment and transcendence of the physical body.

Body Language: The Yogis of India and Nepal is on view at the Rubin Museum of Art through July 4.

4 thoughts on “Body Language: Photographs by Thomas Kelly at the Rubin

  1. I find it fascinating–completely alien to me and really gorgeous images.

    Unfortunately I checked and flights to Tibet are about $2000+


  2. I saw the show at the Rubin which is on of my favorit museums. It has some amazing programs, about dreaming and nothing and so much more.You have hidden talent displayed in your golden Budda.

  3. I agree. The Rubin is an incredibly well done museum with very creative and valuable complimentary programs. It’s a treat every time I visit.

Leave a Reply