Brain Pickings

Tantra Song: Rare 17th-Century Indian Paintings That Look Like 20th-Century Western Art

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What a deadly bus accident has to do with Paul Klee, Paris, and the poetry of abstraction.

We’ve previously explored some fragments of the spectrum of art inspired by the Hindu tradition, from beautiful artisanal artwork based on Indian mythology to Meena women’s Mandana public art to a Pixar animator’s playfully stylized, Westernized takes on Hindu deities. Now, from the fine folks at Siglio, who brought us the lovely Everything Sings, comes Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan — 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 Paul Klee, Agnes Martin, and Daniel Buren.

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. In 1985, his quest nearly killed him in a bus accident whilst on the Tantric trail across the deserts of Rajasthan. He suffered a series of comas, spent three weeks in a Parisian hospital and six months at home in a hospital bed, and found his mind as broken as his body, unable to live with the memory of what he considered a painful failure. After a long and painful recovery, 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 so powerfully :

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 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, Tantra Song is a singular convergence of East and West, bound to mesmerize.

Images courtesy of Siglio; some images via The New York Times Magazine

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