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Arthur M. Sackler Gallery announces Strange and Wondrous: Prints of India From the Robert J. Del Bontà Collection

rthur M. Sackler Gallery presents Strange and Wondrous: Prints of India From the Robert J. Del Bontà Collection an exhibition on view Oct. 19–Jan. 5, 2014, presenting 50 printed works that trace European and American documentation of Indian ascetics, deities and religious ceremony.

As global travel boomed from the 16th to the 20th century, Europeans and Americans became increasingly fascinated with Indian culture. Merchants, missionaries and soldiers alike documented their encounters in India and foreign lands through detailed texts and illustrations. These accounts—regularly edited, amended and reprinted in publications as varied as atlases, trading cards, memoirs and magazines—became the paradigm for all that Europeans and Americans found strange, exotic, repulsive or remarkable in India.

Created using a wide variety of techniques, such as engraving, aquatint, lithography and photogravure, these prints demonstrate how perceptions of Indian culture shifted through the centuries, from the European Enlightenment to the period of colonial expansion and into modernity.

The spread of images represented in “Strange and Wondrous” led to broader knowledge and interest in Indian culture—but also to the creation and proliferation of negative stereotypes. Ascetics, or religious figures (often termed “yogis and “fakirs”), with their otherworldly, naked appearance and austere practices, were depicted as supernatural beings, devout penitents, militants, tricksters and beggars. Religious ceremonies, such as swinging from hooks (charak puja), were often interpreted in a Christian framework, rather than a Hindu one, leading to misconceptions of devotees as sinners and fanatics. Deities such as the Hindu god Shiva were cataloged as lovers and drug users feeding generalizations of India as a sensual, spiritual land.

American publications added another layer of satire to their interpretation of exotic cultural practices. A 1943 cover of the Saturday Evening Post illustrated by Norman Rockwell shows the beloved World War II character Willie Gillis outwitting an Indian ascetic with the children’s game “cat’s cradle,” a visual pun of the infamous “Indian rope trick.” Here an American GI has duped the once-powerful Indian yogi, and while it is perhaps a nod to American soldiers’ wily abilities during wartime, the stereotype of India remains intact.

“Strange and Wondrous” will be on view in conjunction with “Yoga: The Art of Transformation”—the world’s first exhibition on the art of yoga—which also opens Oct. 19 at the Sackler Gallery.

The 50 works on view in “Strange and Wondrous” are part of Del Bontà’s bequest of 100 printed works to the Freer and Sackler archives. The collection will be a resource for scholars and educators to evaluate and understand early European and American perspectives of Indian culture through print.

For more information about the Freer and Sackler galleries and their exhibitions, programs and other public events, visit