British Museum’s Tantra expo raises eyebrows and hope

Yogini statue from 900AD displayed at the British Museum (Twitter, British Museum).
Yogini statue from 900AD displayed at the British Museum (Twitter, British Museum).

The word tantra often finds a tantalising or titillating ring to it. For many people, the first thought that it evokes is about Tantric sex. And, to some, the marathon lovemaking sessions that Sting gushed about in drunken stupor back in the early nineties.

No wonder that the British Museum’s upcoming exhibition Tantra—Enlightenment to Revolution has piqued global intrigue.

Curator Imma Ramos says the most common question she got during her five-year research project was: “Is it the Kama Sutra?” That was followed by, “Is it what Sting practises?” Her answer was a simple no.

It is way beyond “salacious stereotypes”, says Ramos. “We will demonstrate Tantra’s enduring potential for opening up new ways of seeing and changing the world.”

The “powerful exhibition”, for which the bookings are open, explores a complex set of beliefs and rituals from sixth-century India. It’s a journey that would take one through “successive waves of revolutionary thought”, says the museum.

Tantra, Ramos explains, “is very much about harnessing desire in order to ultimately transcend it and also to embrace all aspects of the body, all aspects of the sensual, to generate power.

“It is a very different approach to the erotic and to the idea of desire. It is not about pleasure for its own sake, which the Kama Sutra is.”

She quickly adds that the exhibition that showcases “extraordinary objects” from Indian, Nepal, Tibet, Japan and the UK will also cover the subjects of sex and yoga.

The exhibition’s thrust would be on “divine feminine energy”. It would trace how Tantra inspired the rise of goddess worship in ancient India and continues to be a cornerstone of contemporary feminist thought and art.

One striking sculpture from 1890 shows an awe-inspiring Kali, wearing a garland of decapitated demon heads, striding over Lord Shiva. A more contemporary take on the subject is a canvas by Sutapa Biswas from 1985 (on loan from Bradford Museums and Galleries) titled ‘Housewives with Steak-Knives’. Do we need to say anything more on that?

“From its inception to the present day, Tantra has challenged political and sexual norms around the world,” say the exhibition organisers.

In the 19th century, for instance, Tantra became an inspiration for Indian revolutionaries fighting British colonial rule, with goddesses such as Kali becoming symbols of invigoration and independence.

The final section of the show will focus on the 20th century and how, in the 1960s and 1970s, Tantra was “interpreted as a movement that could inspire anti-capitalist and free love ideals”.

Having one of the world’s biggest collections of Tantric material, the British Museum is well-placed to stage such a big exhibition, says its director, Hartwig Fischer.

“Tantra quite simply changed the world,” he says. “Yet, it is little-known, or greatly misunderstood, in the west and this exhibition looks to remedy that.”

It also has a continuing relevance. “Gender, female power, gender fluidity, religious pluralism, mindfulness, wellbeing… these are all topics that are very much part of the contemporary discourse.”

Dr Alka Bagri, trustee of the Bagri Foundation which aided the exhibition, says she hopes it “can change people’s perceptions of Tantric philosophy and its arts” and lead to “greater understanding of this complex subject.”

Tantra: Enlightenment to Revolution will be at the British Museum, April 23 to July 26