What do the Rolling Stones, the goddess Kali and tantric sex have in common?
They all appear in the exhibition Tantra: enlightenment to revolution, which is on at the British Museum until 24 January 2021. Spanning the period from the 6th century (Christian era) to the modern day, and drawing principally upon objects that originated in India, Nepal, Tibet, China and Japan, the show attempts to explain the evolution and influences of this mystic Asian philosophy. The concept is tantalising (or, should that be, 'tantralising'?), but the extent to which it succeeds depends not only on the exhibition's structure but also, in part, on the way that the visitors are spiritually attuned to Tantra.
The exhibition is staged upstairs at the British Museum, in the space above the old Round Reading Room. In previous years that gallery has been occupied by shows devoted to the life and art of Edvard Munch and to Ian Hislop's history of protest. It doesn't necessarily lend itself to those that have monumental exhibits, such as Ashurbanipal and Troy; there is no room to swing a Viking ship. Tantra feels perfectly at home there. The statues and artefacts which fill the opening rooms, and the posters which bring up the rear, are never overwhelmed. And there are some emotionally powerful items on display, ranging from the temple statue of a Yogini goddess, dating from the 900s, to the human remains used in Tantric Buddhist practice, such as the drum donaru made from the tops of two severed skulls.
There is undeniably a lot to learn from this show. It had never occurred to us before that the place-name Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is derived from Kalikata, named after Kali herself. There was an interesting tableau devoted to the cult of thugs, and their reputed connection to the philosophy of Tantra. The design of the Rolling Stones record label is inspired by Kali's tongue (it wasn't just The Beatles who drew upon tantric counterculture). There are sections of the exhibition dedicated to the fusing of Tantra with Hindu and Buddhist ideals, pointing towards the Indian sub-continent being a real melting-pot for the creation and dissemination of tantric spirituality. At times one has to concentrate hard to understand how the various traditions merged or intensified under Tantra's influence. If anything, the show was too short (and limited by the space) to do this part of the story full justice.
What is Tantra's connection to sex, you might ask? There are already hints (the thunderbolt in one exhibit equates to the phallus, the lotus to the vulva) before one small section is given over fully to this topic. We learn that, in Hindu belief, the creation of the universe is understood to be the product of sexual union, and that sex in the tantric tradition can be a means to achieve power and liberation. (There is more detail in this blogpost written by the exhibition curator, Imma Ramos.) A temple frieze sculpture shows a couple engaging in oral sex, and this is connected in turn to the tantric ritual of yoni puja (the veneraton of the vulva). There is a lot to get your head round, both here and in the rest of the show. But will you be blown away?
Tantra: enlightment to revolution is at the British Museum until 24 January 2021
Julian Harrison for Cradles & Labels