Tantra: A System of Thought
Tantra is a word with a rich history and many different meanings, derived from the combination of two words Tattva and Mantra. Tattva refers to cosmological principles, while Mantra refers to the science of sacred sound and vibrations. Tantra therefore is the application of cosmic sciences in order to attain spiritual ascendancy. Simply put, it can be described as a doctrine or collection of philosophies with techniques for achieving liberation or enlightenment.
It is a spiritual science that examines experiences of ‘Self’ with the material world and explores man’s inherent energies, spiritual and physical, methods to expand them, and his place and relevance in the cosmos.
Tantric Art: A Meditative Art Form
Tantra has innovated numerous texts, theories, practices, beliefs and more notably, art. The tradition of Tantric Art evolved over more than a thousand years into a form notable for its iconographic complexity and interplay of cosmic symbols.
Siglio Press' Tantra Song, is one of the only books to survey the elusive tradition of abstract Tantric painting from Rajasthan, India. It is a striking collection of rare, abstract Tantric paintings based on 17th-century illustrations from Indian religious texts that bridge Eastern spirituality with Western 20th-century art in their haunting reminiscence of the likes of Western masters Paul Klee, Agnes Martin, and Daniel Buren.
It is important to note that the paintings featured here come from Tantric Hinduism, beginning in the fifth or sixth century. 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. 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.
The images were discovered by French poet Franck André Jamme in 1970 while rummaging through the catalogs of a Parisian art gallery. He became so transfixed by these esoteric artworks that in the 1980s, he traveled to India to find their origins. His obsession with the artworks led him back to India, where he earned the trust of tantrikas -- the authentic practitioners of the Tantric tradition -- and set out to better understand their meditative art form.
Jamme reflects on why these images spoke to him:
It was strange that such modern, occidental-looking patterns already existed in India during the 17th century, and they were so simple, so powerful, so quietly and naturally abstract, so near, as well, to my own field, which was already something like poetry. Poetry is so often like that, isn't it? Playing with words, using words in such a natural abstract way.
The stunning images make abstract key symbols of Tantric metaphysics and cosmogony, from the bindu, a dot symbolizing the undifferentiated absolute, to the negative space of the shunya, the absolute void of the supreme deity.
But what makes these works extraordinary is the poetic contrast between the seeming simplicity of their minimalist geometric forms and the complex, textured humanity of their handmade paper, water stains, and imperfect text -- two opposing currents, which ebb and flow in a delicate osmotic balance that could never be achieved digitally, on a sterile screen.
Lawrence Rinder observes in the introduction:
It's not just a desire for the antique or a nostalgic patina that makes the incidental marks so important, it's precisely that ideal forms -- forms plumbed from the depths of the mind, of the soul -- need to co-exist with randomness and the emptiness of chance.
Aesthetically breathtaking and framed in a powerful story about curiosity, creative restlessness, and obsession, Tantric Art is a singular convergence of East and West, bound to mesmerize.
Images: Siglio, The New York Times Magazine. Text: The Atlantic, Wikipedia