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Painful Practices
Thomas Kelly
Body Language: The Yogis of India and Nepal
Thomas Kelly, “Smoking Sadhu, 2000; Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal”

Presenting the kind of work most often seen in National Geographic Magazine, and therefore notable for the information it conveys, Body Language: The Yogi’s of India and Nepal at the RMA is really an article in disguise.

Created by writer and photographer Thomas Kelly, its images, all color, are fairly straightforward variations on the same theme, whereas the accompanying texts offer a diverse and detailed commentary on ancient sadhu practices.

Fascinating, odd, and decidedly irrational, these are practices embedded in the same atavistic religious universe found among fundamentalists everywhere, including our own talking-in-tongues variety. Far more deeply intriguing than the images, the text leads us by glimpses into the heart of darkness contained in all religious practice: to wit the arbitrary and bizarre nature of belief and its attendant rituals. Witness the practice of cutting off the penile nerve in order to be able to lift great weights by the penis alone! Really fellas.

 by unidentified photographer.
Thomas Kelly, “Aghori”2000

My own travels in India exposed me to a world in which half-naked men were taken seriously as seekers of truth, their presence in the middle of the road treated with the same nonchalance as the cows they were sharing it with. To travel in India is to necessarily encounter a sadhu sometime or other (unless you spend the entire time in a five star hotel!) For despite the Buddha’s admonition that these austerities are useless, they still command respect, and there is no doubt that some of the less bizarre practices do confer powerful self-control. Yoga, for example. The more extreme mutilations, on the other hand, strike most Westerners as perverse.

Extreme and painful, even masochistic though these practices are, they represent a tradition touched on in the West by the flagellants, and certainly the mortification of the flesh was a familiar theme among the Church Fathers.

Today in America, however, the very notion of spiritual enlightenment is so foreign that anyone announcing he was seeking it would be laughed out of the room. On the other hand, self-mutilation is not a generally acceptable behavior (unless you count tattoos and body piercing which have become popular in our increasingly masochistic culture;) still, the not-so-clear border between discipline and perversity characterizing sadhu practice is relatively alien to us.

But in India odd practices abound. And this is the main fascination and true focus of the RMA show, the real value of Thomas Kelly’s work. While the photos are acceptably workmanlike documents, the information provided by the texts carries the day.

Thomas Kelly
Body Language: The Yogis of India and Nepal


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The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino
Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat
Central Booking Magazine
Soho Photo Gallery