Thinking Tantra

Contributor Helen Tope went along to learn more about Tantric Art in Peninsula Arts latest exhibition

Thinking Tantra is an exhibition that explores the influence of Tantric Drawings. Starting with anonymous drawings, dating from the 18th century, Thinking Tantra includes work from Indian artists made in the 20th century, plus work by contemporary artists.

Tantra (Sanskrit for ‘stretching beyond boundaries’) is a body of beliefs or practices that enables the individual to connect with something larger than themselves. Sorted by chronology, the earliest drawings are exquisitely detailed. Salagramas, a large drawing with tiny inked creatures and fossils, rewards with every glance. Although intended as a tool for meditation, the skill of its creator means that we cannot help but consider this art. The selection outlines the features of early Tantra drawings: bold colours and geometric designs. Looking at these exhibits, you cannot help but infer references: Mondrian, Klee. It all feels remarkably familiar.


The exhibition then moves into the Neo-Tantra movement. Following the 1960’s counter culture trend, Neo-Tantra flourished, with artists both in India and the West, being inspired to create their own work. Many examples of this period feature subjects from traditional Tantric drawings and it is interesting to note the similarities between the traditional and modern pieces.

In the last section of the exhibition, the focus moves onto contemporary artists who have been influenced by original Tantra drawings and the Neo-Tantra movement. The stylistic connection between old and new becomes even more noticeable as the simplicity (and profundity) of symbols used connect to the past, but also pass through the present. With the emphasis on patterns, it is tempting to view Tantric art as an influencer on Modernism and draw the line there. What Thinking Tantra does is to acknowledge that influence, but remind us that these artworks are from different cultures – while they bear some similarities, their meaning and purpose remain firmly at odds.

This is particularly well demonstrated in Shezad Dawood’s work YTR1 (2010). On a piece of vintage textile, Dawood has stitched two circles – one red, one green. The work may look beautifully decorative but Dawood makes clear that the circles are not casual motifs, but Yantra symbols of transcendence – an artistic response to a spiritual need. Dawood not only references Modernism, and what follows it, but also the role Yantras have played in Indian life. It is an impressive piece, and one that sits at the heart of what the exhibition is trying to say.

First staged at Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai, Thinking Tantra is a long way from home. It has evolved by collaboration between Rebecca Heald (Royal College of Art), Amrita Jhaveri and Drawing Room, London, into a collection that thrives on the unconventional. Tantra isn’t a point on a map; it’s a state of mind.

Considering the gap between art as object, and our view of art as subject, Thinking Tantra raises questions about how we ‘consume’ art. Discouraging passivity, it is impossible to leave this exhibition without having formed an impression of some kind. Despite being grouped chronologically, the pieces blend together with a cohesive quality that feels entirely authentic. While the exhibition is left deliberately open-ended, not a false note is sounded.

Critical response to Tantric art has shifted from a reluctance to make comparisons between Tantric and Abstract art, into an acknowledgement of the influence that continues to be felt. It is a philosophy that Thinking Tantra adopts, and does so with great sensitivity.

By placing the work into context (historical, social, and religious), Thinking Tantra boldly illustrates why Tantric art continues to inform and inspire. It is an exhibition that demands a response, but does so knowing the depth of its own value. There is no defining moment, star exhibit or last word – the egalitarian approach feels entirely appropriate for where we are right now. A space without definitions or boundaries – Thinking Tantra is the exhibition you cannot afford to miss.