PRINT January 1970


INDIAN TANTRIC ART WAS PRODUCED by an esoteric cult of Tantra Yoga followers whose origins may predate the 10th century, A.D. It combines yogic instruction, religion, meditation, science, and a spontaneous folk art expression into a great variety of forms which vary considerably in quality and complexity according to the sophistication of teacher, artist, and student, as well as to the level of thinking and belief signified by the particular art forms. A recent revival (or rather, discovery) of interest in this art has resulted in the exhibition of several rare and sizable collections in this country, particularly at galleries and museums on the West Coast. The Santa Barbara Museum will be displaying Mrs. Blanche Manso’s collection from February 7 to 22, and the Los Angeles County Museum had a similar show during November.

The range of Tantric art may include anything from the most rudimentary scratchings and patterns, crude diagrams of body parts (or symbols of them), numerical, astronomical, calendar, astrological or other charts relating to the physical sciences, to cosmic plans, architecture, and the more abstruse yantras. These are psycho-cosmic energy “maps”—dynamic structural diagrams of the particular goals and practices of Tantric Yoga. Often geometrically designed, the yantras enclose or embody syllables of the necessary chants, formulas (mantras) and other secret signs and symbols which may lead the student of this discipline to visualize, then internalize its philosophical, psychological, and physiological notions. Most of the examples of Tantric art illustrated here are probably datable from 150 to 200 years old; since the fragile paper sheets of earlier times have scarcely survived.

Unlike the more aristocratically inspired and court-patronized art of the refined Indian miniatures of parallel periods, Tantric art is not particularly formalized, nor is it preciously restricted in its forms and references. It manages to retain a marvelous freshness, a candid lack of stiffness and formality, and at times even an amusing primitivism, because no single stylistic movement nor any royal school and patron dictated academic ideals of beauty or visual form (apart from the vast general background of Indian pictorial and symbolic tradition). Though of course a uniform point of reference may be located in the basis of Tantric religious practice and belief, a wide margin was allowed for individual interpretation. (This inventive freedom is similarly exemplified by the famous 10th and 11th century erotic sculptures from the South Indian province of Orissa decorating the walls of the great Hindu sun temples at Khajuraho and Konarek, which may have been partially inspired by the contemporary Tantric sects of that region.) The archetypal geometrical patterns, the bright primary colors, the delicate chromatic combinations of abstract and naturalistic forms, and the often systematically code-like aspects of Tantric painting, as well as its more fanciful narrative sequences and bizarre representations of men, animals and the cosmos, have had special attraction to connoisseurs and amateurs because of their departure from the more familiar and regulated esthetic canons of finer Oriental art. Their pictorial and imaginative affinities with developments of the past fifty years in the art of the Western world, both in abstract color painting and in graphic design, make these small, luminous works especially appealing in the contemporary context.

An aura of great secrecy and mystery surrounds the mention of the Tantric sects, due to their involvement with esoteric sexual rites, either literally practiced or mentally conceived under laboratory-like conditions, depending on which branch of Tantra was observed. Yet the art itself had little to do with this sexual aspect of the cult (other than as a secondary image of the conceptual elements pertaining to a union of principles); instead, it served the primary function of instruction. The diagrams, maps, charts, and pictures were in some sense a poor man’s sign language designed to concretize the forms and processes necessary to the practice of the yogic exercises—especially for the initiate who lacked the capacity to conceive of them more abstractly. In other words, the artistic visualization was used as a teaching tool for somatic concentration and for meditation. The Tantric texts emphasize the importance of inner visualization, of realizing the hidden meaning behind all things, so that the artist’s production was, at best, an assistant, subordinate activity—not an independent, professionally produced object with its own external esthetic criteria—but merely an accessory on the path toward spiritual liberation. Practice was the leitmotif of Tantric Yoga, and the essential beliefs revolved around the notion that sanctity and release could be achieved through the “divine body,” through which a physical action would be harnessed and transmuted into a spiritual one. “Tantra” means “what extends knowledge,” so that the goal of its practice was an intensification of the erotic act beyond its mere physical possibilities*—a living physiological ritual which would reunite the two polar creative principles of Siva (Male, static element, Person/Spirit) and Saktí (Female, active energy, Nature/Matter) within the disciple’s own body and consciousness—relating then to the Universal One, Atman. One branch of Tantra, the so-called “Right-Handed” school, rejected the more literal sexual features of the practices, sublimating them into mental exercises, while the “Left-Handed” school accepted and utilized the performance of ritual and group intercourse to attain release through orgasmic self-control. This notion of retention postulated a re-absorption of the seed up through vital nerve centers, so that consummation would take place on an ultimate spiritual level, within what the Yogins refer to as the person’s “subtle body,” expanded in its psychic capabilities through the temptations provided by Tantric practice and discipline.

The postures and gestures of the more familiar non-sexual Hatha-Yoga were employed (sometimes in the erotic context) to produce physiological and psychological readjustments which corresponded in language to the mantra formulas, and in art to the yantra diagrams and configurations, all of which aimed to heighten the various forms of human power and concentration. The “subtle body” of Tantra (and of Yoga in general) is a model consisting of six imaginary nerve centers (chakras) whose energy patterns can be psychically balanced and reorganized through the discipline of the postures and exercises in conjunction with the recitation of mantras and the contemplation of yantras. The mantras simply reveal thought patterns, yet hidden within them are secret guidelines for the perception and manifestation of visionary imagery; colors are said to result from the inherent potency of certain formal arrangements of essence, mass, and energy. For instance, red often denotes the feminine essence (Saktí), while white may signify the male element (Síva), and in combination they give rise to associations of conception, regeneration, and divine play between cosmic forces.

Some of the pictures in the Manso Collection refer to the concept of Tantric sexual-spiritual union (maithuna), although they do not actually represent the sex act, and it is only the coloristic combinations or secondary image-patterns that pertain to a mingling of erotic forces. Many of the yantras and personal or scientific charts have no sexual connotations; they denote an integration of sublime universal principles, or demonstrate methods for calculation and instruction. Much of the recent focus on this art has probably resulted from the more suggestive experiential basis of Tantric ritual with its erotic practices, and from the cachet of the forbidden, guarded means through which these practices could be learned and revealed to the select initiate. Widespread interest in both the occult and the erotic is a current cultural preoccupation of proportions which need no further comment here. Though it is important to be acquainted with the conceptual basis of these Tantric cults for a deeper appreciation of the art they produced, it is also fortunate that the art does manage to go beyond the significance of its religious, philosophical, or technical foundations to express itself in a language of vibrant pure form, lively decorative color, and graphic invention which matches the finest artifacts of folk traditions in the Far East or the comparable manuscript and crafts traditions of the Western Hemisphere.

Emily Wasserman



* Stella Kramrisch, Indian Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum, U. of Penn. Press; Phila., 1960. Other sources include: Mookerjee, Ajit, Tantra Art, its Philosophy and Physics, Kumar Gallery, New Delhi, 1966/67, and Bharati, Agehananda, The Tantric Tradition, Rider & Co., London 1965. I wish to note here my thanks to Mrs. Blanche Manso for her gracious cooperation in acquainting me with her collection, and also to Mr. John Brzostoski of N.Y.U. and the New School, for his advice and consultation.