If you’re like me, the words “Tantra” or “Tantric” conjure up a lot of mystery — and not a little of it sexual.
For better or worse — well, for worse — that’s the “rap” Tantra has in the West. Can we blame the hippies? Sure, why not! They seem to get the blame for everything else!
But two recent books I’ve read have helped me shed my preconceptions of what Tantra means and understand it better in the oeuvre that is yoga, yoga philosophy and yoga practice.
One is Richard Freeman’s latest, “The Mirror of Yoga.” The other is one we’ve mentioned before, “The Hindus.” I highly recommend them both as they put into Tantric practice into context. I have a better understanding, even appreciation, for Tantra’s reaction to “mainstream” Hinduism of different times as well as what its esoteric or “transgressive” nature intends. It operates in the realm of symbols and symbolic acts and focuses on pushing beyond boundaries. It is simply another path toward understanding the relationships among our perceived world, the unperceived world, our bodies and our inner selves. (Not to put too fine a point on it. And I’m definitely not claiming that as a definitive explanation.)
My education took another five or six steps forward this past weekend when we viewed an exhibit currently showing at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. “Tantra Song: Contemporary Tantric Paintings from Rajastan” runs through Dec. 10. I’ve mentioned the show, in brief, before. Here’s a link to the musuem’s page for it.
Here’s the key description of the show:
Tantra Song: Contemporary Tantric Paintings from Rajasthan is a collection of thirty-nine anonymous works from India, made from 1985 to 2009. The process of painting these works is part of a spiritual practice, and the paintings themselves have specific qualities to guide private meditation. Made in tempera, gouache, and watercolor on salvaged paper, they are pinned up and anointed for use as spiritual objects, then discarded once aged and faded.
This rare lineage of Tantric art evolved from seventeenth-century, hand-written and illustrated religious treatises, which were copied over many generations. The contemporary result is a distinct visual lexicon used to awaken heightened states of consciousness. The paintings include a range of familiar geometric forms, each imbued with spiritual meaning: spirals and arrows for energy; inverted triangles for the goddess Shakti; and ovals for the god Shiva. Though deeply symbolic, the formal compositions of these works share a great affinity with twentieth-century abstract art. East and West, spiritual and aesthetic, ancient and modern all converge in this exhibition.
All of the art is notebook paper-sized, and entirely abstract. (There’s almost a Rothko or Pollack quality to some, interestingly enough.) The simplicity of it, I found, allowed the viewer — in this case, me — to fill the piece with whatever you wanted. It was just an oval, or it was Shiva, or it was Shiva and you — the limit of the pieces entirely was in the viewer.
At times, it feels more like the art is looking at you than the other way around. And I could understand completely how it would compress the distance between individual and Divine.
In other words: yoga.
Posted by Steve