Tantra: From Enlightenment to Revolution review shock and awe – The Guardian

Posted: September 28, 2020 at 11:58 pm


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There is a statue in this staggering show of the tantric god Bhairava, famous for his rages. Wild hair flows in rivulets from his carved granite face and his smile is alarmingly fanged. One of his four hands holds a noose, and another now missing used to brandish the skull of the creator god Brahma, which he had lopped off in a fury. Bhairava liked to use this skull as a begging bowl.

Now Bhairava is just as much a Hindu god as the divine Brahma. The difference is that hes a radical arriviste, a new god who may be summoned via devotion to the Tantras, those written instructions dating back to 500AD which explain how these new deities may be invoked through ritual yoga and visualisation. According to the ancient Tantras on display, inscribed with spectacular graphic force on palm leaves, if you follow the rituals diligently enough you will acquire all sorts of special powers, including the ability to fly.

One of Bhairavas earliest followers was a closet poet who gave up being a housewife to follow him. She wanted to be rid of conventional obedience and beauty and become equally anarchic. And so she appears in numerous bronze statues: naked, ascetic and vigorously intelligent; the first of the tantra saints.

Tantra, which is somewhere between philosophy and belief, argues that women can personify divinity, and that female sexuality holds sacred powers. Womens needs must therefore be honoured. There are many images at the British Museum in which women are receiving every kind of sexual satisfaction, including an exquisite painting of two apparently aristocratic lovers he wears earrings and four strings of pearls, she sits in his gilded lap, awaiting his sperm at some forthcoming hour. But Tantric deferral, as proselytised by Sting and Trudie Styler, is not supposed to lead to pleasure so much as enlightenment (what else?).

A text superbly written by the shows curator, Imma Ramos makes this strict point. But there is a lively cognitive dissonance here for the viewer; and so it continues. A hulking great statue of the Hindu maternal god Parvati shows her wearing human bones as jewellery; and her counterpart, Kali, can be a thundering grotesque with bulging eyes, garlanded with her enemies skulls and treading heavily on the naked body of her lover. Little red corpses are deftly threaded through her lobes for statement earrings.

This is the British Museums first new show since reopening, and it never ceases to startle. This is an art of shock and awe, of violence, bloodshed and ecstatic laughter.

A couple of hundred goddesses, wasp-waisted, bosomy and tremendously sinuous, strike the wildest of poses, often beaming with humorous glee. You think youre looking at some lissome yoga stance, light-footed, balletically reaching like Warrior 1 or 2, and it turns out to be another goddess stamping her enemy to death. This is body art like nothing in the west.

The shows subject is so nebulous (and so disputed) that any visitor might be forgiven for reading their way round the walls as much as looking, struggling to comprehend the shapeshifting gods and radical philosophy as it weaves (literally the meaning of the word tantra) between Buddhism and Hinduism, associating itself with Indian independence, feminism and 60s counterculture.

A one-minute film of chakras, holy men, veils and whirling statues, co-produced by Mick Jagger in 1968, mesmerises at the entrance, even without its soundtrack (which can be heard outside). Perhaps the Stones understood it all better than the Beatles in their ashram, for the inside sleeve of Sticky Fingers, which I always assumed to be Jaggers logo mouth, in fact shows Kalis lasciviously lolling tongue.

A glum-looking yogi sits cross-legged, trying to drum up tantric visions. He is painted top to toe with chakras, flowers, snakes heads and even a caricature turtle. But nothing indicates any kind of success. Whereas another watercolour, exquisite as an Elizabethan miniature and from exactly the same period, shows an aristocratic woman giving it all up to listen to a couple of female tantric divines in a garden, the blossoms glowing by twilight. And in another, a yogini carries a delicate peacock fan through a fading landscape with absolute serenity: a beautiful example for the Mughal court.

In tantra, wisdom and compassion are embodied as a god and goddess. You cannot have one without the other, so they must be united. Hence the many couplings described in this show, from sedate emblems to undulating, many-limbed statues. Tantra was an antidote to the religious orthodoxies of the past, in which womens bodies were an obstruction to enlightenment. Now they become temples to the spirituality that flows through the universe. Though it is no surprise to learn that tantra does not have much contemporary reach in Indian communities where girls are violently raped and murdered.

But this radicalism has its expression, too, in the colossal blades both real and depicted at the British Museum to be used by some powerful Kali. And even more devastating are the chilling aprons made from human bones; intricate chains of beads and chakras carved out of the bones found in charnel houses. Nothing, alas, in either the catalogue or the wall texts could quite explain for me the breaking of that mortal taboo.

But it certainly has something to do with fear, or the exorcising of fear; and that goes to the heart of tantra art. All the images you see here, from elaborate temple reliefs to scratched drawings, diaphanous watercolours to colossal stone figures, involve some kind of emotional encounter. And most unforgettable of all is a painting of a tantric cemetery.

Bhairavi (Bhairavas female counterpart) sits cross-legged on a corpse, its head violently torn off, skulls nestling in her lap. Shiva is her devotee, blue with ash and paying careful attention among the charred flesh, skeletal remains and burning pyres, their smoke spiralling skywards. The goddess, blood-red and horned, looks like some Bollywood version of Halloween. But even as we learn that images of compassion and wisdom in full coitus arent intended to arouse, so I believe the opposite is true in this case. The image is exemplary. You must enter that scene in your frightened mind, face the future and conquer your fear.

Tantra: Enlightenment and Revolution is at the British Museum, London, until 24 January 2021

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Tantra: From Enlightenment to Revolution review shock and awe - The Guardian

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September 28th, 2020 at 11:58 pm

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