Tantric Paintings: Some Observations

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.

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