By Ajay Ghosh
New York: Striking photographs by Thomas L. Kelly capture extraordinary-looking sadhus, famously known as the mystics, ascetics, yogis and wandering monks of South Asia. Sadhus renounce worldly life, earthly possessions and social obligations to devote their lives entirely to religious practice and the quest for spiritual enlightenment.
Sadus, the vividly decorated or completely nude wandering ascetics of Hinduism, are the subject of striking photographs by Thomas Kelly in Body Language: The Yogis of India and Nepal. “Body Language,” a photographic exhibition is being held at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York from January 28 – May 30.
Having lived in Kathmandu, Nepal, for decades, Kelly is personally acquainted with most of the sadhus represented in the exhibition, affording him such rare, intimate encounters. Still, Kelly says, the sadhus are an enigma to him. Kelly likens them to “a living question that people have forgotten to ask. Their painted bodies,” he says, “confront us with essential questions at the heart of existence…provoking the questions, ‘Who am I?’ ‘What do I need?’ ‘What is really important?’
Enlightenment — liberation from the inherent suffering of worldly existence — is the ultimate goal in the Hindu religion. Sadhus embody this search for religious illumination, serving as living representations of the spiritual ideals expressed and the ascetic figures represented in tantric Hindu and Buddhist art. Though an important part of Hindu cultures, sadhus’ commitment to attaining non-attachment and transcendence of the physical body leaves them on the fringes of society.
Sadhus, whom Kelly describes as “disturbing, annoying, inspiring, exasperating, irrational, wise and powerful,” increase their spiritual powers and advance on their path to enlightenment by practicing intensive forms of yoga and meditation and even performing magic rituals. They use their body like a canvas on which to tell stories, using colors and symbols to represent esoteric inner visions and higher states of consciousness, while also expressing their religious identities.
Thomas L. Kelly made his first trip to Nepal in 1978 as a 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, with a special focus on sex workers and the traditions of prostitution across South Asia. His writings have appeared in publications worldwide, including the New York Times, Time, and National Geographic. Films produced and directed by Kelly have appeared on Discovery, USA, National Geographic, and the BBC.