“An Egoless Practice”: Tantric Art
April 3, 2012 | by Lauren O'Neill-Butler
It could be a cult classic: the debut edition of Siglio Press’s Tantra Song—one of the only books to survey the elusive tradition of abstract Tantric painting from Rajasthan, India—sold out in a swift six weeks. Rendered by hand on found pieces of paper and used primarily for meditation, the works depict deities as geometric, vividly hued shapes and mark a clear departure from Tantric art’s better-known figurative styles. They also resonate uncannily with lineages of twentieth-century art—from the Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism to Minimalism—as well as with much painting today. Rarely have the ancient and the modern come together so fluidly.
For nearly three decades, the renowned French poet Franck André Jamme has collected these visual communiqués, and it hasn’t been easy: in 1985 he survived a fatal bus accident while traveling to visit Hindu tantrikas in Jaipur. In Tantra Song, Jamme assembles some of the most pulsating works he’s acquired, while unpacking his experiential knowledge of Tantra’s cosmology.
Western views of Tantra tend toward hyperbole. (The New York Times recently published an article, “Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here,” noting, “Early in the twentieth century, the founders of modern yoga worked hard to remove the Tantric stain.”) Jamme’s book serves as a corrective to this slant and sheds significant light on the deep historical roots—and fruits—of the practice. Siglio will release a second edition of the book on April 19. Jamme and I recently discussed these anonymously made paintings, the altered states they induce, and their timeless aesthetics.
It is possible to define Tantric practice?
Tantra is extremely difficult to explain. But it’s important to note that these small paintings come from Tantric Hinduism, beginning in the fifth or sixth century, and not Tantric Buddhism. For instance, the goddess deities are Shiva, Kali, Tara, and so on. After painting, one is to meditate with these to finally make the divinity appear. It’s an egoless practice. In Sanskrit tantra means “loom” or “weave,” but also “treatise.” The paintings date back to the handwritten Tantra treatises that have been copied over many generations, at least until the seventeenth century. At some point they evolved into this complex symbolic cosmology of signs.
Hindu Tantrism combines devotional elements with ones that may seem more mystical, such as mantras and mudras. It is really a libertarian branch of Hinduism, and often it is forbidden. So the reputation of Tantrism in India itself is not great, but in fact the families who practice this kind of meditation and make these paintings are very free.
How did you find the paintings? Was it after the bus accident?
Unfortunately the tale of how I came to actually find these works is a very bad story—but that’s life. The first time I saw them was in little catalogue for an exhibition that was in Paris in 1970, at Le Point Cardinal Gallery. I was intrigued—they seemed so modest, compelling, and almost naturally abstract. They reminded me of poetry, and they stayed with me. Years later, I went to Nepal and stopped briefly in India, where I tried in vain to find them. In 1984 I took another trip to India but still did not find them. Finally, in 1985 I decided to focus my search just on Rajasthan. I arrived in Delhi and four or five days later departed on a bus with my wife for Jaipur. I could tell the bus driver was under a lot of stress. Perhaps he hadn’t slept in a long while. Sixty kilometers later—after we had already run into a small farmer’s cart, and the driver had to fight with the farmer—we collided head-on with a huge truck. Seven people died in the crash. I really only have fragments of memory about this and what happened immediately afterward, but after being in Jaipur General Hospital with nine fractures, I was eventually sent back to Paris in sort of a hammock.
After the bus accident I didn’t feel like speaking about it for a long time. On the one hand, it was still a bit painful, and on the other it was so odd to listen to myself tell these very strange tales. But it sweetened. After the accident happened, it took two or three trips back to India before I decided to really try to find these paintings and seek out the families who make them.
Who introduced you to the families?
A very odd man, sort of an astrologer. I essentially went to see him because he knew the father of one of my best friends in India at that time. I had come back to Rajasthan about two years after the accident and I just wanted to have a peaceful, restful stay at his house in Udaipur. However, quite quickly he noticed that I was not feeling very well, so he talked about it with his father, who suggested that I go to this astrologer. During our meeting we discussed my astrological chart, and he asked me what I was searching for. I told him I just wanted to know more about these paintings. He told me to come back in two days.
During the second meeting, after a ritual you can read more about in the book, he told me I had paid my tribute to the goddess Shakti after being in such pain after the accident and that I could carry on with this research. And at the very end of this meeting, as I was walking out of his house, he said to me with a strange and mysterious smile, “Wait, I forgot to give you something.” Everything began after that—he provided me with the first two addresses of families he knew as tantrikas. It was the first information I had to set up a meeting. This set me traveling—at least fifteen trips so far—all over Rajasthan.
And what happened when you visited them?
The main idea was to learn some precise things about this art, since at the time there was very little published about it. So it took at least ten years to sketch out an ethnologic survey. I learned that the vocabulary of the paintings is very similar to that of ragas in Indian classical music. We don’t really know who began making them, or precisely when, but we can see that every so often—maybe once a century—a new musical “note” or motif appears.
Of course, these people don’t consider themselves to be artists. It is a kind of traditional activity in the family. At a very young age, they learn to do meditation and other related exercises, one of which is to paint. Sometimes these pieces are made as gifts for someone else in the family, who can then worship it. They are now being collected in the West, but in India people have collected this art for centuries, because it is very simple and beautiful.
You began exhibiting them in Paris in 1994. What has the reception been like in France?
All kinds of people, but mostly artists, are very interested. The curator and collector Ajit Mookerjee published a few images of them previously in his books, such as Yoga Art from 1975, but other than that they were really unknown here. It is always a good sign when artists especially appreciate a particular kind of art, since they seemingly know the field and the history the best. It means perhaps it won’t be very popular—but that’s fine.
And what effect has this art had your own life and writing?
I don’t think it’s had a big influence on my work, because my roots are elsewhere. And I’ve never had just one collection of them—there is a constant turnover, especially after I began organizing exhibitions. Right after the strange accident in ’85, I wrote The Recitation of Forgetting—I’ve been very lucky, John Ashbery translated it into English—and there are reminiscences of some of the Tantric images in the book, but it’s the only one where I mention them. But perhaps a small influence has been that I am able now to write in a more meditative way. So the effect has been more oblique.
I think when you travel as frequently as I do you can search, try to understand, and try to know more. But you especially find yourself when you travel.
I have been particularly touched by the welcome I've received in the United States, thanks especially to John Ashbery, who opened the door. And it’s a pleasure, too, because with this work—my poetry and collecting of this art—I feel I’ve become a citizen of the world. I don’t mean to say that my work has not been appreciated in France, but it’s been interesting to see the contemporary art world in the States really embrace this Tantric abstract art.
Yes, which could mean that our notion of progress—past, present, and future—is not correct. And it could also mean that abstract art is not necessarily a Western, nineteenth-century art-historical development. It dates back to Native American, Tibetan, and Australian Aboriginal sand painting, for sure.
Caption texts by Jamme, from Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan. All images and text are copyrighted.