Thomas Kelly and the Sadhu Universe

5

Textual Tilaka by Thomas Kelly - courtesy of the artistt the exhibit Body Language: The Yogis of India and Nepal at the Rubin Museum of Art

Textual Tilaka by Thomas Kelly - courtesy of the artist

Thomas Kelly – A window into the world of Sadhus

Thomas Kelly, the noted photographer, tells many stories through his stunning images. A photo-activist, he has opened windows into the worlds of marginalized people and ostracized communities. Many of these journeys into little known lives have been in collaboration with major social organizations including UNICEF, Save the Children Fund, and the Aga Khan Foundation. For the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation he recorded the lives of sex workers and prostitution across South Asia, and for the UK Department for International Development he has documented child prostitution, trafficking, conflict and resolution, and water and sanitation issues.

Kelly, who lives in Nepal, is also a photo artist who through the lens of his camera captures the ethereal beauty of remote landscapes and ordinary people. These editorial images have appeared in major international publications from The New York Times to Le Figaro. New Yorkers got to meet him recently at the Rubin Museum of Art for the launch of his book and the accompanying exhibit: ‘Body Language: The Yogis of India and Nepal’

These powerful images take you into the little known world of sadhus – the ascetics, mystics and yogis who decorate their bodies with religious markings and are often completely naked, as they renounce material trappings in their quest for liberation from suffering. Kelly, who has spent years with sadhus, calls them “disturbing, annoying, inspiring, exasperating, irrational, wise and powerful.”  He has also visited all the Kumbh Melas where the sadhus congregate, and he says that some of the most memorable images that he has shot have been in these grand unions of the holy men.

Panch-Agni Tapasya by Thomas Kelly from the exhibit Body Language - the Sadhus of India and Nepal at the Rubin Museum of Art

Thomas Kelly - Panch-Agni Tapasya

Browse this exhibition at the Rubin Museum (till May 30, 2011) and you will find the paths to enlightenment are many. Some sadhus are vividly decorated with colors, others daubed with ash from the crematoriums – using their body as a canvas for their beliefs while others even discard their clothing as a way of setting themselves free, on their path to finding moksha or spiritual enlightenment.

The large tilakas or markings on their body also identify which religious group they belong to.  According to Kelly, who has lived with them for many years in Nepal, these sadhus are like “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?’”

Nag Phani Baba by Thomas Kelly at the exhibit 'Body Language: The sadhus of India and Nepal  at the Rubin Museum of Art

Nag Phani Baba by Thomas Kelly

So as we ponder this, we can take a stroll through the beautiful Rubin Museum of Art situated in frenzied Manhattan and see how the sadhus are trying to make sense of the world. I’m always intrigued by the fact that this gorgeous museum devoted to the soul and to spirituality was once a highly materialistic shopping heaven – Barneys! Now to walk through it is like being in a temple of peace, and each of us is free to find our own path to salvation.

Extara by Thomas Kelly at Body Language: The Sadhus of India and Nepal at the Rubin Museum of Art

Extara by Thomas Kelly

information about the Images:

Thomas Kelly

Textual Tilaka, 2002

Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal

Archival Lambda color print

40 x 26 in.

Courtesy of the artist

Thomas Kelly

Sadhu Brothers, 2000

Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal

Archival Lambda color print

20 x 30 in.

Vaishnava Sadha Brothers by Thomas Kelly at Body Language: The Sadhus of India and Nepal at the Rubin Museum of Art

Vaishnava Sadha Brothers by Thomas Kelly

Thomas Kelly

Nag-Phani Baba, 1989

Varanasi, India

Archival Lambda color print

40 x 26 in.

Thomas Kelly

Ektara, 2010

Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal

Archival Lambda color print

40 x 26 in.

Thomas Kelly

Panch-Agni-Tapasya, 2000

Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal

Archival Lambda color print

40 x 26 in.

Bom Shankar by Thomas Kelly in 'Body Language: The Sadhus of India and Nepal' at the Rubin Museum of Art

Bom Shankar by Thomas Kelly in 'Body Language: The Sadhus of India and Nepal' at the Rubin Museum of Art

Thomas Kelly

Bom Shankar, 2000

Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal

Archival Lambda color print

40 x 26 in.

Courtesy of the artist

Thomas Kelly

Hanuman Das, 2000

Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal

Archival Lambda color print

40 x 26 in.

Thomas Kelly

Aghori, 2000

Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal

Archival Lambda color print

20 x 30 in.

Aghori by Thomas Kelly in Body Language: The Sadhus of India and Nepal at the Rubin Museum of Art

Aghori by Thomas kelly

Thomas Kelly

Smoking Sadhu, 2000

Pashupatinath, Kathmandu, Nepal

Archival Lambda color print

40 x 26 in.

Photos (C) and courtesy of Thomas Kelly

Hanuman Das by Thomas Kelly in Body Language: The Sadhus of India and Nepal at the Rubin Museum of Art

Hanuman Das by Thomas Kelly. Photos courtesy of artist

Share.

About Author

Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications. [email protected] & @lassiwithlavina Sign up for the free newsletter to get your dose of Lassi!

5 Comments

  1. Rayudu Choudry on

    Interesting pictures…I am planning for the 2013 Mela myself. Does he have any large photographs for sale or only for public displays?

  2. Lavina Melwani on

    Priti, thank you for the details – I am sure this will be useful to other readers as well. I will also email this information to Rayudu as it was long overdue.

  3. Rayudu Choudry on

    Hi Priti,

    I’ve sent an email to the address you have provided. I also noticed that he has a book for sale that is a collection of all of the images. Thank you.

  4. Amazing photos you captured of these fascinating sadhus…I look forward to getting a copy of these wandering nomadic renunciates. Thank you for Sharing these images here.