December 24, 2020
“IF YOU WENT TO THE BRITISH MUSEUM EXPECTING SEX, you’d be disappointed,” says Conor Macklin, director of London’s Grosvenor Gallery. He sounds a little disappointed. After all, if one braved Covid-19 to see a British Museum extravaganza, titillatingly titled “Tantra: enlightenment to revolution,” then surely sex was part of the deal? Curator Imma Ramos begs to differ. Ramos—the guiding light behind the show (which opened on September 24, 2020 and runs through January 24, 2021)—hopes to uncouple Tantra from cheesy associations with carnal black magic.
Ramos’s spiritual nemesis was “Tantra: The Indian Cult of Ecstasy,” staged at London’s Hayward Gallery in 1971. Equating Tantra with sexual deviancy, Hayward’s survey propounded stereotypes that Ramos strove to subvert. Her show seeks to “present the first historical exploration of tantric visual culture from its origins in India to its reimagining in the West.”1 It does so by collating over one hundred and thirty artifacts sourced across a vast geographical terrain (India, Nepal, Tibet, Japan, and the United Kingdom), hopscotching from the seventh century to the present day. Museumgoers journey from the earliest tantric texts in existence (such as the Nectar of the Thunderbolt Tantra, a palm leaf from Nepal dated to 1162) to a medieval sculpture of the Goddess Chamunda: Her face skeletal, her eyes staring, she wields a sword to battle the forces of darkness. She finds her counterpart in a nineteenth-century statue of a dancing Kali, also adorned with human heads. Visitors learn that this dark-skinned Hindu Goddess already enjoys a fan base in Britain: Kali’s bloodied protruding tongue was repurposed by Mick Jagger as the Rolling Stones logo. At the heart of the show is a womblike atrium suffused with violet light, a recreation of a tenth-century Yogini temple in Odisha. Such sites are usually roofless, open to the heavens to facilitate divine visitations. The British Museum’s ceiling assumed the guise of a star-spangled sky, emblazoned with projected images of soaring Yoginis.
In Ramos’s chronicle of “corporeal spirituality,” women are generally on top. The Sanskrit tan means “to weave,” “extend” or “compose,” so Tantra denotes an interweaving of rituals and practices associated with Goddess worship. As this valorization of divine feminine power (Shakti) swept across India, it enabled the ascendency of women as deities and gurus. Images of tantric goddesses combine references to motherhood and death. Such a conflation made them potent symbols for Indian revolutionaries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, encouraging a form of “devotional nationalism” in which the body politic was configured as a terrifying Mother Goddess who required the martyrdom of her sons. Intriguingly, the exhibition explored Shakti’s subversive role in the subcontinent’s Independence movements, as Kali became a mascot for anticolonial resistance, particularly in Bengal. In nationalist propaganda, she appears on the rampage: her mouth full of blood, her neck decorated with severed male heads, dripping gore. The Black Goddess of Death—infamous for trampling her consort, Lord Shiva, during her frenzied dance of destruction—is also a figurehead for South Asian feminists. In British artist Sutapa Biswas’s painting Housewives with Steak-Knives, 1985, the gigantic Bringer of Bedlam sports four muscled arms (sprouting armpit hair), one of which clutches the head of a hapless male. She is flanked by another tantric heroine: Bharti Kher’s All the While the Benevolent Slept, 2008, a fiberglass mock-up of the decapitated Goddess Chinnamasta. Her neck spurting jets of coppery blood, Kher’s dark dame holds a porcelain teacup in one hand, a grinning skull in the other. Is she innocently enjoying a cuppa, or contemplating carnage? Is she reminding visitors that Britain’s genteel predilection for teatime is a relic of a ruthless imperial past?
In fact, Ramos uncovers the British Museum’s complicity in Empire’s rapacious distortions of Tantra. The institution holds one of the world’s largest collections of tantric objects, many of them courtesy of Britain’s imperial adventure. Some of this booty was hidden by the squeamish Victorians in “The Secretum”—created in 1865 to store “obscene” artifacts. Among those secreted away was an eleventh-century maithuna sculpture (the Sanskrit term refers to sexual coitus). Until the 1960s, it was kept under lock and key and available only to a chosen few (read: male, white) to have a “scholarly” peep. Though visitors can now gaze freely at the copulating couple, the story of their “acquisition,” possibly from Maharashtra’s Elephanta Caves (now protected by UNESCO), remains shrouded in mystery. Will they ever go home?
The path to liberation is a tricky trek. How to treat the once-colonized Other as an equal? A currently popular method within Euro-American institutions is to allow them entry into a redefined notion of modernism as a “global” (rather than a Western) category. This is the route Ramos took. Indian abstract painters who were beguiled by Tantra’s sacred geometry—think kundalini circles, throbbing vermillion mandalas and yonic triangles—were lumped together as flag bearers of “global modernism.” The museum already possessed Neo-Tantric paintings by G.R. Santosh and Biren De, but acquired two more by London-based Prafulla Mohanti and Munich-based Mahirwan Mamtani especially for the show. According to Ramos, these artists were influenced by the writings of collector Ajit Mookerjee in the 1970s, and valiantly sought to “reclaim Tantra from its colonial-era association with hedonism and black magic.” But Ramos spin glosses over the fact that the Neo-Tantrics never established a coherent, self-consciously modernist movement with a revisionist agenda (in the way that Bombay’s Progressive Artists’ Group did in 1947). De and Santosh belonged only to what can at most be deemed a fairly typical trend in Indian painting spanning the 1960s to the ’80s. Moreover, the doyenne of Indian art history, Geeta Kapur, cast aspersions on their doings—mocking the “so-called neotantrics” for peddling a “pastiche” of the “rhetoric of Indianness,” and many of the tendency’s most prominent exponents (including De himself) distanced themselves from the activities of their brethren.2 Thus Ramos’s shoehorning runs counter to De’s own wishes but, more importantly, it evades the question of the Neo-Tantrics’ status within Indian Modernism—even as it unwittingly rubberstamps market-driven categories.3 Artistic practices organized into identifiable “collectives”—especially those sheltered under the banner of “modernism” (a term associated in Indian art history, thanks to Kapur, with an avant-garde)—are safe commercial bets. So excited was Sotheby’s by Ramos’s assemblage of “Neo-Tantrics” that a 2020 auction in New York beat her to the punch by inducting Santhosh, De, and Mamtani’s pulsing paintings into a section called “Neo-Tantra as Liberation.”
One could argue that Ramos’s inability to account for the complexities of Indian modernism—and the place that Tantra played within it—are forgivable given the ambitious remit of this blockbuster exhibition, which covers everything from the “medieval to the modern.” But then, why aspire to such a feat? Century-spanning extravaganzas “revealing” the colonial spoils of Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism are par for the course in Anglo-American intuitions. Are such shows—however sophisticated—the product of a neocolonial tendency to subsume the Other under the banner of “inclusive” programming? However, it seems unfair to rebuke “Tantra” for exhibiting a propensity that is prevalent in Western museums, and it is certainly better for these institutions to try to represent the multitudinous cultural production of the formerly colonized world, despite the attendant problems and pitfalls, rather than ignore them. In any case, Ramos’s daredevil path to Moksha deserves applause. Her nods to Tantra’s syncretic history as a conjoining of the mystical strains of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism provide a vital counternarrative to the chauvinism of India’s right-wing politicians. Thanks to the rise of the Hindu Right, Tantra has been stuffed into a straightjacket, its multireligious antecedents obliterated as Hindu fundamentalists don the garb of “Orthodox” tantric monks. “Tantra was never a monolithic religion, but rather an adaptable sacred tradition that was incorporated into and appropriated by other belief systems,” Ramos bravely insists. As her dancing Devis, menacing Mothers, and skull-sporting Goddesses alternately berate and beguile, we must concede that Ramos’s rebellious “beauties” do enlighten us, dispelling some murky misconceptions along their way.
Zehra Jumabhoy is an art historian and curator specializing in modern and contemporary South Asian art.
1. Email Interview by the author with Imma Ramos, 9/11/20.
2. Geeta Kapur, When Was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India, Tulika Books: New Delhi, 2007, pp. 307-309.
3. Interview by the author with Siddhartha V. Shah, Curator of South Asian art, at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, 16/11/20. The museum contains De, Santosh, and Mohanti as part of the Chester and Davida Herwitz Collection, renowned as one of largest collections of modern Indian art in the world. Shah has currently been researching these holdings for a rehang of the Herwitzs’ bequest in PEM’s new South Asia Galleries. According to Shah, who interviewed De’s wife, the artist steered clear of the term “Neo-Tantric.”