Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review – Tantra: enlightenment to revolution at the British Museum from 24 September 2020 to 24 January 2021

Exhibition Review – Tantra: enlightenment to revolution at the British Museum from 24 September 2020 to 24 January 2021

© 2020 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

The British Museum presents a new exhibition which charts the rise and spread of Tantra, a set of beliefs and rituals that first emerged in India around AD 500 and how these beliefs influenced Tantra’s early medieval transformation of Hinduism and Buddhism, its links to the Indian fight for independence and its part in the 1960s counterculture in the West.

© 2020 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

Tantra: enlightenment to revolution is the first major exhibition in the UK to focus on the history of Tantra and its global impact. The British Museum houses one of the biggest and most comprehensive collections of Tantric material in the world and over 100 objects will be on show, including masterpieces of sculpture, painting, prints and ritual objects.

© 2020 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

Tantra is a philosophy rooted in sacred instructional texts called ‘Tantras’. They take their name from the Sanskrit word ‘tan’, meaning ‘to weave’ or ‘compose’, and are often written in the form of a conversation between a god and goddess. The exhibition features four examples of some of the earliest surviving Tantras in the world, made in Nepal from around the 12th century, these texts outline a variety of rituals for invoking one of the many all-powerful Tantric deities.

© 2020 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

Tantras often described rituals that transgressed existing social and religious boundaries, in order to achieve liberation and generate power.

© 2020 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

The exhibition explores Tantra’s radical challenge to gender norms. The Tantric worldview sees all material reality as animated by Shakti which is unlimited, divine feminine power. This view inspired the dramatic rise of goddess worship in India and the exhibition features a 9th-century sandstone temple relief from Madhya Pradesh depicting the ferocious goddess Chamunda dancing on a corpse, to an 18th-century courtly painting showing female gurus offering Tantric initiation.

© 2020 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

These depictions have influenced contemporary works by female artists including Sutapa Biswas’ 1985 mixed media work Housewives with Steak-Knives, which evokes the Tantric goddess Kali in a modern feminist form.

© 2020 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

Tantra was also used as a tool of revolution during the fight for India’s independence in the late 19th century. Indian revolutionaries used goddesses such as Kali as symbols of an independent India rising up against the British. The exhibition features dramatic sculptures and artworks of Kali wearing garlands of decapitated heads, which exploited British fears of a bloodthirsty revolution.

© 2020 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

The final section of the exhibition focuses on the 20th century, and the way that certain aspects of Tantra were used in the West. During the 1960s and 1970s, Tantric ideas and imagery were used in global countercultural movements to advocate free love ideals. The Tantra-inspired psychedelic posters that were used in London and San Francisco are on show, as well as paintings, photographs and sculptures illustrating Tantra’s enduring influence in art and popular culture.

© 2020 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

This fascinating exhibition provides evidence of the considerable and diverse cultural and religious traditions of Tantra, that has generally been misrepresented in the West. The association with sex and yoga has led to the Tantra traditions to be generally overlooked and ignored. This has been unfortunate because these traditions often challenge political, sexual and gender norms, this exhibition places the traditions in the correct context to understand their importance in Hinduism and Buddhism.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Recommended

For more information and tickets, visit the British Museum website here

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