17 January 2021

Review of Tantra: enlightenment to revolution British Museum (24 Sept 2020 - 24 Jan 2021) By Kajal Meghani

 Tantra: enlightenment to revolution at the British Museum seeks to demystify Tantric philosophy. Curated by Dr Imma Ramos, the exhibition challenges the visitor to rethink any preconceived notions they have of Tantra, which is often misunderstood as a hedonistic sexual practice. Rather, as the exhibition explains, Tantra is a collection of instructional sacred texts that are written as a dialogue between gods and goddesses. The texts encourage devotees to transcend desire, aversion and fear by actively engaging with the erotic and macabre to view the material world as being animated by the power of divine feminine energy known as shakti.

The exhibition is arranged chronologically and explores the history of Tantra as waves of influence. Starting with its beginnings in sixth-century India, the exhibition’s examination of Tantra continues with its influence on India’s fight for independence from British colonial rule and ends with the impact of Tantric philosophy on 1960s counterculture and contemporary artists across the world. The exhibition features objects from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Tibet, Japan, the UK and the USA, demonstrating materially the far-reaching impact of Tantra.

The first sections of the exhibition opens with the earliest surviving Tantric manuscripts (now in the collection of Cambridge University Library) and temple sculptures representing the goddess or yogini from the museum’s collection. 

Fig 1: Sandstone sculpture of the goddess Chamunda. Photograph: Trustees of the British Museum.
The exhibition shows how Tantra’s profound influence on Hindu and Buddhist thought in medieval India inspired the rise of goddess worship in parts of South Asia. Goddesses associated with Tantra, such as Chamunda, a formidable form of Parvati, the Hindu goddess of fertility and love, were incorporated into the Hindu and Buddhist pantheons. In Buddhism, Tantric thought led to the rise of Vajrayana Buddhism, or the path of the thunderbolt, which spread across parts of Asia and gained a particular stronghold in Tibet.

This part of the exhibition explains the foundations of Tantric philosophy to the visitor and includes an evocative recreation of a 10th-century temple dedicated to yogini worship in Odisha (eastern India). Temples devoted to yogini were circular in design with an open roof to invite yoginis from the sky to enter the sacred space. The immersive recreation enables the visitor to understand how the sculptures on display would have been positioned in relation to one another and to experience the interplay of the building and the sky during worship. 

Fig 2: Recreation of a 10th-century temple dedicated to the worship of yoginis. Photograph: Trustees of the British Museum.
 

Stereotypical ideas of Tantra associated with yoga and sex are unpicked by the exhibition to show how these practices enabled a devotee to achieve enlightenment. Sculptures and paintings from India, Tibet and Nepal illustrate how practitioners could use their body and senses to awaken their own or their partner’s shakti. This section shows that Tantra not only influenced Buddhist and Hindu thought but also interested Islamic rulers, such as those of the Mughal empire based in northern India and independent Islamic sultanates largely based in Southern India. One of the most fascinating paintings in this section commissioned by a Mughal ruler, possibly Shah Jahan (1592 - 1666), is the depiction of the goddess Bhairavi painted in the 1630s by Mughal court artist Payag (active 1591 - 1658), which is from the Metropolitan Museum. Bhairavi, depicted with red skin, fangs and adorned with a garland and skirt made of human skulls, sits on a decapitated body in a cremation ground with a man, possibly the Hindu god Shiva or a yogi imitating him. The painting was commissioned as a gift by the Mughal ruler to the Hindu ruler of Mewar, Jagat Singh (1607 - 1652), who was a devotee to the goddess Bhairavi.

Fig 3: The Goddess Bhairavi Devi with Shiva. Photograph: The Metropolitan Museum

A section of the exhibition focusing on the use of human remains in Tantric Buddhist practice as a reminder of the impermanence of the body, was developed in consultation and collaboration with members of the Tibetan community in London and scholars of Tibetan Buddhism. Listening to their personal experiences and perspectives on the use of human remains in Tibetan Buddhist practice whilst looking at the display of objects made of human bones provides a unique insight into the display that a museum label may be unable to do. 

Fig 4: Display exploring the influence of Tantra on Tibetan Buddhism. Photograph: DHA Designs
 

This and the following section of the exhibition, which focus on the role of Tantra during British colonial rule, challenges the language and misconceptions that stemmed from colonial scholarship. During the colonial period, many British officials and missionaries misunderstood Tantra as black magic due to the use of human remains and the depictions of fierce goddesses such as Kali, a Tantric goddess particularly venerated in Bengal that inspired revolutionaries challenging British rule in India.

The final section of the exhibition examines the influence of Tantra on artists based in Asia, the UK and the USA and continues to influence practitioners today. Following the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, South Asian artists inspired by Tantric philosophy came to be known as the Neo-Tantra movement and the final section of the exhibition displays paintings by Biren De (1926 - 2011), Ghulam Rasool Santosh (1929 - 2007) and Prafulla Mohanti (b. 1936). Tantra’s influence on the UK and USA, is contextualized by the politics and counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, and also touches on the first exhibition of art inspired by Tantra, which took place in 1971 at the Hayward Gallery.

Fig 5: The final section of the exhibition displaying the influence of Tantra on the Neo-Tantra movement. Photography: DHA Designs.

Tantra: enlightenment to revolution is an important exhibition with rich content and interpretation that allows the visitor to develop a nuanced understanding of Tantric philosophy and to see how it influenced religious and cultural beliefs across the world. The exhibition dispels misunderstandings of Tantra being related exclusively to sex and so-called black magic, and contextualizes these ideas within the wider framework of Tantric philosophy whilst also tracing the origins of these misconceptions. This is further explored through a selection of collecting histories of some of the objects in the exhibition found on the museum’s website. The interpretation in the exhibition is clear and the sections that highlight and incorporate community and practitioner voices enable the visitor to gain a multifaceted understanding of Tantra.

Given the current COVID-related restrictions, the exhibition and the British Museum is closed until further notice. Until the exhibition can be visited in person, the Museum’s website features a guided tour of Tantra: enlightenment to revolution, given by its curator, Dr Imma Ramos and features additional content on the Museum’s blog.

Kajal Meghani is a collaborative doctoral award student with the University of Brighton and the British Museum, funded by AHRC

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