by Elise Marie Collins
For the past seven years, artist and graphic designer Chiraag Bhakta, aka Pardon My Hindi, has been mining thrift stores, garage sales and private collections for yoga images that tell a story of cultural appropriation. Do an online search for the word yoga, says Bhakta, and you will find mostly images of white people in various poses followed by cats and dogs in asana(s).
Now on display as a part of the San Francisco Asian Art museums exhibit, “Yoga: The Art of Transformation,” Bhakta’s installation #whitepeopledoingyoga presents a vintage visual history of yoga products, guides, and advertisements from the 1960’s-1980’s. Before there was a yoga studio on every block, the wall-sized collage of found yoga ephemera reminds us of myriad long forgotten genres, Executive Yoga, Christian Yoga, Unisex Yoga and Zoga. A McCall’s pattern for a 1980’s jogging suit shows a caucasian woman casually demonstrating tree pose. A paperback cover model holds shoulderstand, seductively bending one knee and wearing fishnet stockings. Overall, the dominant demographic on the assemblage are fair skinned, unitard wearing women who look like yoga extras from the set of “Mad Men.” These yoginis of yesteryear predate the astronomical explosion of yoga’s popularity and commercial explosion in the West, yet forewarn of a culture preoccupied with choosing yoga for vanity and early branding of culturally palatable yoga to mainstream America. Bhakta explains in his artist statement:
“The act of selectively choosing what works in popular Western contexts, while ignoring aspects of yoga’s core philosophy and historic practice is telling. It shows an ironic attachment of one’s ego to a desire for ownership over an ancient practice of material denouncement that emerged from an altogether different, South Asian tradition.
In the end I feel compelled to draw parallels between the current state of yoga and the industrial colonization by the same dominant voice that now adds another conquest to its collection.”
Individually the yoga collectibles might seem curious and humorous, yet en mass, Bhakta finds their “overall voice, overwhelming and suffocating.”
In his youth Bhakta soaked up Indian devotional music, Bollywood tunes, underground hip hop and rock and roll. He attended Catholic school while being raised in a devout Jain household spending his early youth was spent in a motel off a New Jersey freeway where his family lived and ran the business until he was seven. During his youth a group calling themselves “the dot busters” harassed the South Asian community in New Jersey and referred to them as dot heads for their bindis.
#Whitepeopledoingyoga represents, Bhakta says, “a reflection of my personal relationship as an Indian American with yoga and it’s migration to today’s Western context, the hashtag symbolizing the commercialization and the commodification of a culture.”
He notes the lack of representation of South Asians depicted in American yoga marketing, or content creation in publications such as Yoga Journal. In the exhibition “Yoga: The Art of Transformation,” there is, he says, a “sharp turn” in the history of yoga. Rooms filled with ancient Sanskrit texts, traditional watercolors, paintings and sculptures tell a very different story of the practice of yoga. The exhibit then “enters a new level of commercialization in the West, the $27 billion dollar yoga industry has rebranded a complex and rich discipline to make it easier to sell yoga as a line of products.”
Bhakta has found his own commercial success in creating iconic images that coalesce modern aesthetics with mythic and symbolic representations of the South Asian American experience. He has designed merchandise and album covers for a variety of musicians including Talvin Singh, Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa and the hip hop group Das Racist. Levi’s Asia commissioned a line of Pardon My Hindi graphic t-shirts that were sold in Singapore, India, Pakistan, China and Korea.
Bhakta’s The Arch Motel project, a collection of photographs of Gujarati motel owners and their motels now are on exhibit in the Smithsonian as part of the Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation. Chiraag Bhakta lives in San Francisco where he practices yoga and continues his creative pursuits. You can check out #whitepeopledoingyoga on tumblr or see more of his work at www.pardonmyhindi.com.
Elise is a yoga teacher and San Francisco native. She is the author of Chakra Tonics, Essential Elixirs for Mind, Body And Spirit. You can find her on twitter @mysticflavor of Elise Marie Collins Yoga + on Facebook.