‘Tantra: enlightenment to revolution’ exhibition at the British Museum until 24 January 2021
‘Before you drink from a skull’ said Manisha Ma Bhairavi, ‘you must first find the right corpse.’ That is the arresting start of William Dalrymple’s account of Tantra in his ‘Nine Lives: In search of the sacred in modern India.’ [Dalrymple 2009] It reflects one end of the spectrum of Tantra as seen in the West. We needed a fresh look: the last exhibition on Tantra in London was 50 years ago so this new show at the BM is very welcome. Both exhibition and the associated publication by curator Imma Ramos [Ramos 2020] aim to ‘offer new insights into a philosophy that has captured our imagination for more than a millennium.’ She succeeds admirably in addressing an unruly subject in a fairly cramped space, where less is usually more, and at greater length in the profusely illustrated book.
Ramos defines Tantra as
A philosophy originating in medieval India, Tantra has been linked to successive waves of revolutionary thought – from its sixth-century transformation of Hinduism and Buddhism, to the Indian fight for independence and the rise of 1960s counterculture. Centring on the power of divine feminine energy, Tantra inspired the dramatic rise of goddess worship in medieval India and continues to influence contemporary feminist thought and artistic practice.
This is the kind of exhibition the BM can do almost entirely from its own collections and those of the British Library, but there are some exciting loans here also. It’s especially rewarding to see many familiar pieces from the BM’s Hotung Gallery displays retagged and juxtaposed here. One of the many achievements of exhibition, book and online resources is to acknowledge the controversy around Tantra but to move rapidly on and concentrate on what is a highly demanding task – presenting a phenomenon which has so many particularly western layers of prejudice, over excitement and ignorance to unpeel.
The exhibition begins with a subtle nod to Mick Jagger [the iconic red tongue is Kali’s] and ends with the era of flower power- the Coltranes, Allen Ginsberg- and contemporary women artists all responding to Tantra. The last two exhibits would give a Victorian archdeacon in Calcutta serious palpitations and one wonders how his wife might have reacted to such ferocious images of female power. ‘Housewives with steak knives’ by Sutapa Biswas is an astonishing image from Bradford of a multi armed young Indian woman on the warpath with white haired head dangling from one hand, steak knife brandished aloft, and intriguingly in another hand a postcard sized image that turns out to be by Artemisia Gentileschi who famously showed graphic violence to men, having herself suffered at their hands. The equally brutal sculpture next to it ‘And all the while the benevolent slept’, 2008, by Bharti Kher shows a female figure holding her severed head with stylised blood spouting from her neck. Source material for this can be found earlier in the exhibition. It reflects what another Indian woman artist has asserted: ’woman-hatred is entrenched in the…framework of most societies and pervades most cultures to the point of being celebrated’ [Jagit Chuhan in ‘Beyond Frontiers’ eds Ghosh and Lamba, Saffron 2001]
In between we are taken by the hand and led through a potentially overwhelming thicket of ideas practice and imagery; and we glimpse the spread of Tantra across Asia in Tibet and Japan. The texts are exemplary and the selection visual rather than archaeological. Tiny manuscript images are kept to a minimum.
Tantra figured strongly in the counter cultures of the 60s and in exhibitions like that created by Philip Rawson at the Hayward Gallery in 1971 and expanded in his books in 1973. [Rawson 1973, 1973a] In the ground breaking exhibition at the Hayward Gallery ‘In the Image of Man’ in 1982 however Tantra doesn’t figure at all as such although many objects relate to it. [Michell et al, 1982] Indefatigable and controversial Hinduist Wendy Doniger characterises writers like Rawson and David Gordon White as ‘hard core’ believing that what is described in texts and art actually happened whether involving corpses, ashes, bodily fluids or endless ecstatic sex. What she calls ‘softcore’ is the disapproving official view in India today- that it’s all symbolic. [Doniger 2004] She discusses Tantra and related sects at greater length in The Hindus: an alternative history. [Doniger 2009] Her revisionism is put in context in Frazier 2011:224-6 for example. Imma Ramos sits in the middle: she talks rather of right hand [symbolic] and left hand [literal] interpretations and comments that the literal and the symbolic co-exist and the tensions between them make Tantra unique [Ramos 2020: 273]’One cannot attain liberation by means of soothing and pleasing antidotes’ we are sternly informed by a Tantric text [ibid: 165] and Ramos observes that ‘It is clear that sexual rites were also performed literally’ in certain contexts [ibid: 145].
There is an essential ambiguity also about gender at the heart of Tantra: men made much of the art and wrote many of the texts; they worship Tantric goddesses yet clearly and not surprisingly can also feel threatened by Tantra and its potential for powerful women in everyday life, not least their own homes, especially when wielding steak knives and supported by yoginis and the reassurance of goddesses like Kali and Durga, triumphing where male gods had failed. Siva is shown here in one painting as part male and female for example. He and Kali combine in Tantra: she is often astride his inert form as in the exhibition image. Male compassion and female wisdom need to mingle. The ego needs to be trampled underfoot.
Tantra hasn’t lost its appeal either to downtrodden women or western orientalism. A glance at Amazon confirms that a full spectrum of books on Tantra is readily available today, from the French poet Franck Andre Jamme’s Tantra Song – Tantric Painting from Rajasthan 2011to books such as Barbara Carrellas, Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-First Century 2017. The novelist and activist Arundhati Roy explores many tantric themes in her novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness 2017] much of which takes place in a graveyard. The book is dedicated aptly to The Unconsoled.
Tantra set out to shock and to offend the prudish, the powerful and conservative, and continues to do so. This exhibition and its book help us understand why and how it is alive today.
Carrellas, Barbara .2017. Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-First Century. Emeryville, CA: Ten Speed Press
Dalrymple, William. 2009. Nine Lives: In search of the sacred in modern India. London: Bloomsbury.
Doniger, Wendy. 2004. Review ‘Going with the flow’ TLS May 21
Doniger, Wendy.2009. The Hindus: an alternative history. London: Penguin. Chapter 15.
Frazier, Jessica [ed.]. 2011. The Bloomsbury Companion to Hindu Studies. London: Bloomsbury.
Jamme, Franck Andre. 2011. Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan. Catskill, NY: Siglio Press
Michell, George et al. 1982. In the Image of Man. London: Arts Council of GB.
Ramos, Imma. 2020. Tantra: enlightenment to revolution. London: Thames and Hudson.
Rawson, Philip. 1973. The Art of Tantra. London: Thames and Hudson.
Rawson, Philip 1973a. Tantra – the Indian cult of ecstasy. London: Thames and Hudson.