Work from Saganur (2001) (all images courtesy The Paris Review unless otherwise noted)

PUNE, INDIA — It has been some time now that I have been reading and looking at pictures of abstract Tantric paintings coming from Rajasthan, India. I have seen a couple of artists referring to them in their video interviews while elaborating on the topic of non-objective art, and then there was the first edition of Frank Andre Jammes’ book, Tantra Songs from Siglio Press, which sold out in just a few weeks.

Work from Jodphur (2008)

Minimal Tantric art seems to be in the spotlight more than ever.

These paintings are pretty amazing and I was impressed when I saw these “modern art” looking works, created obscurely by unknown Tantric ritual practitioners from Rajasthan, the north-western region of India. One reason, I think, was that the paintings looked very different from the familiar motifs and imagery of ancient Hindu and Buddhist religions that are commonly seen here in India. The images are stunningly minimal and metaphorically contemporary looking. In addition these are created on found papers probably with available natural pigments. All these factors make the paintings an unusual phenomenon. But after having said this, there is another aspect of these paintings which makes me feel a bit uneasy. Let me explain why.

First of all I do not disrespect the fact that people are painstakingly collecting these paintings, researching and writing about them. But if we want to analyze them from art’s point of view, we will have to keep the excitement, romanticism and spiritual curiosity aside for a while. It is uncanny to see the “resemblance” these paintings have with many of the modern art works, but this does not mean that these paintings are a result of a conscious art practice from ancient Tantrism. These are instead the outcome of ritualistic processes. When art serves as a component of ritualism, the questioning stops and so does its evolution.

Near Udaipur, 2008, 15 1/8, image courtesy of The Paris Review

Work from near Udaipur (2008)

Art evolution is a process where “questioning” is recognized as one of the core essentials. Questioning could be about the elements, process or even technique; it could be a public thing or a personal practice. We would not have seen the change in art during the Renaissance if artists, despite predominantly serving religion, had not challenged themselves. Masaccio, Mantegna, Da Vinci, Raphael or El Greco, would have created the same imagery again and again.

I have my doubts as to whether the people who are creating these works have ever asked themselves why something is represented as an oval or a triangle, or why a certain color has been used. They understand it ritualistically and follow it from generation to generation. I am certainly very curious about how these paintings got initiated centuries ago, during a period when most of the sculptural and painterly elements in India were ornately depicted. But I am not ready to associate this isolated practice with today’s Indian understanding of non-representation. Modern Indian artistic understanding predominantly stands on Western artistic thought process deeply rooted here now for over a century. The Tantric paintings can be called outsider art, in line with the broadened scope of classification of outside art over years. But as artists, we have to be careful while analyzing these works despite their resemblance with modern western art. As for poets, cultural historians, collectors or spiritual tourists, I think they should be free to accept them in whichever way they see fit.

Debu Barve is an artist and art bloggera from Pune, India. Besides painting, he loves reading and writing about art, history and culture. When he's not doing this, he's visiting galleries and museums or...

6 replies on “Tantric Paintings: Some Observations”

  1. they are done intuitively in an effort to visually express in geometric simplicity the archetypes that show up in consciousness as the result of sadhana, spiritual practice. in that, they are the essence of art.

    if you meditate deeply, you will make the same kind of paintings. it is not a rote practice, but the expression of an inner discovery.

  2. When I saw this work, I cried; I don’t need to analyze if I am moved so deeply, if what I am looking at allows me to connect with that level of truth.

  3. I’m not sure how individuation of the artist or ‘questioning’ removes the paintings from the discussion of how they fit in with our ideas of abstraction. Isn’t that the question here,  whether abstraction was ‘invented’ by the modernists or whether these paintings are some kind of proof that abstraction is a human state across time and cultural boundaries? If so, and maybe I’m missing your point here, then the ritual quality of these paintings seems not so relevent.

  4. For those who haven’t been able to get a copy of the book mentioned in the post, Tantra Song has been reprinted and will be available again in bookstores and online by early May. Full disclosure: I’m writing from ARTBOOK | D.A.P., the book’s distributor.

  5. Within the context of the western idea of art, the author makes a very valid point that this really isn’t much of a big deal. Its sorta been done. However, ritual and art have become so departed since…im not sure exactly when so il say “ages ago”… which has led us down a path in which nihilism and irony are predominant. Its my personal opinion that the punchlines are getting tiring, more and more often it seems insincere and cheap. Perhaps this is a good time to go backwards a little ways, to modern abstraction, throw in something different into the mix such as ritual, and see if it goes in another direction.

  6. Guys, appreciate your remarks. – Getting connected with any art is a personal process driven by several different factors, so it’s nice if you find an instant connection with these works and don’t want to analyze the process or the works. Evidently, you don’t need to.

    @JosephYoung- The argument is not about who invented abstraction. The question is whether a conscious process has produced this abstraction or not. It is certainly a curious thing contemplating about the first person/persons who created these symbols and shapes many centuries ago, and it would be interesting to understand their thinking behind these works. But I find it difficult to afford an equal amount of interest to the present day practitioners of Tantric art, who are probably only following the rules laid out by those first persons.

    @Andrew Luk- I can understand your point of view and see where you are coming from. It will indeed be interesting if, as you said, ritualistic processes bring about a change in the modern day abstraction.

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