Tantra: enlightenment to revolution at the British Museum

The rebellious spirit of Tantra, with its potential to disrupt prevailing social, cultural and political establishments, remains ripe for the reimagining.

British Museum, text on a label describing a sculpture of the Tantric goddess Chinnamasta and her attendants at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India.

Following Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk, I headed to the British Museum to discover the Tantra: enlightenment to revolution exhibition that just opened, on display until the end of January.

The last time I went to the British Museum for an exhibition was for Troy, which was absolutely amazing (so amazing I still think about it). I also caught the Munch exhibit quickly when I was there for work – and Tantra happened in the same exhibition space.

Upon entering the exhibition, it felt very dark. The lights were dimmed, the walls were black, it was basically like being on the British Museum’s website, but in real life (do not get me wrong: their site is fantastic).

I am no expert in history or art from India – it’s incredibly rich though and I have an amazing memory of an exhibition I saw in Paris a few years ago about the Kamasutra books. I guess I expected the same, or something very similar.

To me, what was memorable about this exhibition was the last room, full of modern and contemporary art related to Tantra. This is where I learnt that the Rolling Stones’ famous logo is inspired by the Tantric goddess Kali! Next time you need a new topic of conversation, just use that.

Information

The exhibition was full of information and knowledge – I always find it very hard to see exhibitions about Indian history and culture due to how rich and intricate it is, and because there are so many elements at play.

To me, Tantra was always a form of energy, of synergy between body and mind – this exhibition puts the feminine power at the core of Tantra, specifically with the goddess Kali (who now you know is represented with an open mouth and visible tongue, though it represents her thirst for blood).

As I said earlier, my favourite part of the exhibition was the presence of Tantra in modern and contemporary art, which made me look at those pieces in a different way. I particularly enjoyed Penny Slinger’s Rose Devi and Chakra Woman, which played on the relationship between ‘the physical and the spiritual’ (in her own words) and which are, to be honest, just beautiful to look at.

Quality of the objects

The British Museum exhibited some beautiful pieces and there was such a huge variation of media – sculptures, illustrations, posters, paintings, etc. One thing the British Museum does know how to do, is exhibiting a sculpture (and lighting it properly) – watching them always makes me tingle a bit.

This particular exhibition perhaps did not present as many opportunities as the Troy exhibition to add in some digital elements – but the digital temple was a very nice touch, using audio and visual effects, showing some mantras.

Design of the exhibition

The exhibition space was a bit tight, however the British Museum was very careful in its crowd management (they apologised for a 10 minute delay, but to be honest I’d prefer waiting than not being able to see anything because of the crowd).

The colour environment went from black to white at the very end (as if somehow emerging from a tunnel) with always a red dominant to echo the power it holds. I thought the last room (again…) was very powerful in the way it presented the pieces, specifically the last one, Housewives with Steak-Knives by Sutapa Biswas, magnificent painting that stares at you as you are leaving the display.

The finishing touch

Tantra was not as big an exhibition as Troy (and was never meant to be), and I think I still had the hype from the latter and was expecting as much. I did enjoy going, and particularly enjoyed the applications of Tantra to modern and contemporary art.

I’d say another highlight was to see the following written on a wall:

If diligent, everyone, even the young or the old or the diseased, gradually obtains success in yoga through practice.

Dattatreya Yoga Shastra (Yoga Treatise of Dattatreya), India, 1200s

That should get me going for my yoga practice.

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