British Museum to showcase ancient Tantra knowledge
Tantra, the set of ideas, beliefs and practices with roots in Hinduism and Buddhism, is the subject of the first such exhibition at the British Museum focussing on its impact in India and beyond, tracing its development as a radical philosophy since its emergence AD 500.
Called ‘Tantra: Enlightenment to Revolution’, the exhibition depicting original Tantra texts and images is supported by the Bagri Foundation and will run from April 23 to July 26. The idea is to raise Tantra’s awareness in the West beyond sex and yoga, and remove some misconceptions.
The exhibition will explore Tantra’s early medieval transformation of Hinduism and Buddhism, along with its links to the Indian fight for independence and the rise of 1960s counterculture in western countries, organisers said.
Imma Ramos, the exhibition’s curator, said: “This major exhibition will capture the rebellious spirit of Tantra, with its potential to disrupt prevailing social, cultural and political establishments”.
“Tantra is usually equated with sex in the West, but it should be understood as part of a broader philosophy of transgression. We will demonstrate Tantra’s enduring potential for opening up new ways of seeing and changing the world.”
It is the first time the British Museum – which houses one of the biggest and most comprehensive collections of Tantric material in the world – will explore the subject in an exhibition.
Over 100 objects will be on show, including masterpieces of sculpture, painting, prints and ritual objects, with around one-thirds on loan to the Museum from important collections in the UK and internationally.
The exhibition will demonstrate that from its inception, Tantra has challenged political, sexual and gender norms around the world, and that it has always been linked to successive waves of revolutionary thought, the organisers added.
The exhibition will feature four examples of some of the earliest surviving Tantras in the world, on loan from Cambridge University Library. 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, including through visualisations (imaginatively identifying with a deity) and yoga.
The exhibition will particularly explore Tantra’s radical challenge to gender norms. The Tantric worldview sees all material reality as animated by Shakti – unlimited, divine feminine power. This inspired the dramatic rise of goddess worship in India and confronted traditional gender roles.
Goddesses and female Tantric practitioners will be featured prominently in the exhibition, ranging from 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.
Alka Bagri, trustee of the Bagri Foundation said: “We are excited to be part of an exhibition that we hope can change people’s perceptions of Tantric philosophy and its art, contributing to a greater understanding of this complex subject.”