Contemporary artists explore Tantric drawings


Thinking Tantra 

24 Nov 2016 – 19 Feb 2017  

Opening Wednesday 23 November 6 – 8.30pm

Prabhakar Barwe, Tom Chamberlain, Shezad Dawood, Nicola Durvasula, Goutam Ghosh, Alexander Gorlizki, Prafulla Mohanti, Jean-Luc Moulène, Badrinath Pandit, Anthony Pearson,  Sohan Qadri, Prem Sahib, G.R. Santosh, Richard Tuttle, Acharya Vyakul and Claudia Wieser.

Thinking Tantra is a trans historical exhibition that begins with anonymous Tantric drawings, dating from the second half of the nineteenth century, continues with work made in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s by Indian artists and includes work by ten international contemporary artists, presented in roughly chronological order.

The first group of works includes a range of 'original' Tantra drawings and Yantras. Tantra is a body of beliefs and practices that enables individuals to conjoin with something much larger than themselves— 'nothing short of cosmic forces’; a Yantra is geometrical diagram or object used as a tool in tantric rituals; meanwhile Mantra is a word, or series of words, syllables or sounds believed to have sacred spiritual power.

A small number of works from the so-called 'Neo-Tantra' movement are brought together in the second group. These are artists who either practiced Tantric rituals or customs, were part of the Neo-Tantra movement, or appreciated Tantra as a socially relevant form of self-expression: Prabhakar Barwe, Prafulla Mohanti, Sohan Qadri and G.R. Santosh.

The third 'type' of Tantric drawing shown here is the anomalous 'authored' work by Acharya Vyakul and Badrinath Pandit. Vyakul’s works first came to the West's attention when poet Franck André Jamme included them in a selection of works for the 1989 Centre Pompidou exhibition Magiciens de la Terre.

The exhibition features work by ten contemporary artists, all of whom know of and readily articulate a relationship with Tantric drawings.  Thinking Tantra speaks to the impulse Tantric drawings inspire in many artists to explore multiple dimensions, with artworks taking both two and three dimensional forms, and a site specific wall drawing by Claudia Wieser.

The exhibition is a curatorial collaboration between Rebecca Heald, Amrita Jhaveri and Drawing Room, London. A first iteration of the exhibition was at Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai, in early 2015. Specialist in Tantra, Jain and ritual art from India, gallerist Joost van den Bergh has helped select the anonymous Tantric drawings and works by Bandrinath Pandit and Acharya Vyakul.

Wed 23 November: 4:30pm – 6:00pm: Tantric Drawing panel discussion including Thinking Tantra artists Shezad Dawood, Nicola Durvasula and Claudia Wieser with Amrita Jhaveri



The type of Tantric drawing that features in this exhibition, thanks to its geometry and use of bright colours, has become popular in the West. The symbols and patterns used are distillations of forms first known to have appeared in ancient Sanskrit texts. Copied from generation to generation, their combination of refined shapes and palette makes the drawings appear curiously familiar, leading many to make instinctive links to western abstract art. Yet they are made according to very different motives. Though abstract art in the west is often spoken about in metaphysical terms, it is predominantly aimed at enabling an individual (the artist) to find her/his place in the world. It is free from the collective sign system used in tantra. Tantric drawings are made as tools for meditation and complex psychological rituals. Conventionally they are made anonymously by people who would not describe themselves as artists, often on found paper, and they are used to connect with a myriad of cosmic forces, in order to visualise Ultimate Reality, or Nirvana.

Anonymous Tantric drawings

This includes a range of 'original' Tantra drawings and Yantras. Though 'Tantra' and 'Yantra' are often used interchangeably it is worth defining terms here: Tantra is a body of beliefs and practices that enables individuals to conjoin with something much larger than themselves— 'nothing short of cosmic forces'; a Yantra is geometrical diagram or object used as a tool in tantric rituals; meanwhile Mantra is a word, or series of words, syllables or sounds believed to have sacred spiritual power. As the 'traditional' works here have been made anonymously and are not usually classified as artworks it is hard to attribute exact dates to them as well as offer hard and fast details of provenance or meaning. Specialist in Tantra, Jain and ritual art from India, gallerist Joost van den Bergh has helped bring together this selection.

Prabhakar Barwe lived in Varanasi between 1962–1965 and it is here that Tantric forms first captured his interest. For Barwe, Tantra was a way of thinking that encompassed everything, and he was dedicated to finding his own, specific and personal, version of it. These very rare works are from the time Barwe spent working at the Weavers Service Centre, where artists worked with weavers in the development of textile designs. 

Prabhakar Barwe bio

Tom Chamberlain has had a relationship with Tantric drawings, especially Shiva lingam drawings, for more than a decade and is intrigued by the notion that they are ‘things that get used’. He writes: ‘There are certain things to be looked at that demand something other than the analytical faculties of eye and mind. In the process of trying to figure out what thing this thing in front of us is, we can momentarily collapse into its resistance, be engulfed in its namelessness…Buddhist Shiva paintings make this kind of encounter, this loosing of one’s head. These anonymous ellipses are made in order to induce a meditative state, and so suggest an emphasis on how we attend to things, rather than why, or what they might be’.

Tom Chamberlain bio

Shezad Dawood has a long-standing commitment to the exploration of the esoteric. Often fusing symbols from different mystical, religious, and philosophical traditions, he is absorbed by what he describes as ‘the irrational and esoteric foundations of Modernism.’ In work over the past decade he has often referenced Tantric symbols and philosophies directly, as here in YTR 1, 2010. The abbreviation 'YTR', from Yantra, is indicative of the aspiration for the work to be a tool for transcendence.  As Shezad says:‘The two circles indicate the intersection of the manifest and hidden spheres of experience. Where speech meets conscious thought and all things become possible. This meeting ground is common to all the esoteric traditions: from Sufism to Gnosticism, and is the space where the tantric practitioner or practical magician operates. In scientific terms it is also the intersection between normative and quantum possibility, and thus represents evolving consciousness as it moves beyond duality’.

Shezad Dawood bio

Nicola Durvasula lived in India for a decade, although originally from the UK. Though her method of working is different from Tantrikas (practitioners of Tantra), as Francesca Fremantle (a scholar Sanskrit and Tibetan works of Hindu and Buddhist tantra) suggests, if there are ‘English Tantrics’, she is definitely among them. Some years ago she acquired multiple copies of Drawing Center's publication ‘Field of Colour’. She used these copies in different ways—some images she cut out and framed, some she used as a basis upon which make to new work, and some she transcribed: questions of agency, authorship, and appropriation abound. Also shown here are works that venture into the sonic realm of Tantra–Mantra, in which symbols found in traditional Tantric drawings provide a starting point for new graphic notations that can and have been activated by musicians and percussionists.

Nicola Durvasula bio

Goutam Ghosh's recent catalogue ‘Ascribing to them birth, animation, sense and accident,’ makes a number of direct references to Tantra, including an essay by Kaustubh Das on the encounter between Indian religious and spiritual practices and colonialism. He writes: ‘Modernism has not been a mere search for absolute truth, as opposed to religious art. Rather it has been a move to appreciate the different shades of truth. In my case, I do not feel the need of any special permission—neither from a priest nor from a scientist—to access both of these fields of knowledge. I am my own priest in my temple and my own scientist in my laboratory.’

Goutam Ghosh bio

Alexander Gorlizki established a collaborative practice in Jaipur with master miniaturist painter Riyaz Uddin in 1996. From this time on, he also built up an extensive collection of early Indian vernacular drawings including Tantric diagrams and Yantras (literally, ‘machines’), some dating as far back as the mid-18th century. For this exhibition he shows works on paper that allude to this wide-ranging and historical material—esoteric and spiritual content is implicit, colour charts are used, while reference is also made to modernist Western formalism.

Alexander Gorlizki  bio

Prafulla Mohanti was part of L.P. Sihare’s 'Tantra' group that travelled to America and became 'Neo-Tantra'. Now 80, he has made art since the age of three. Known as the village artist, growing up he was relied upon to make drawings for all occasions and decorate people's houses. Based in London, he originally came to the UK in the 1960s to study town planning in Leeds. Wrestling the greys of England, he began to cover his lodgings with bright-coloured artworks, sometimes made during ritualistic performances.  ‘My painting is rooted in my village culture, which is influenced by yoga and Tantra. Art is a part of daily life. The lotus is the main symbol. The lotus of my childhood has undergone changes through abstraction, from a circle to a point. Absolute abstraction makes it disappear. From this nothingness life begins again and becomes everything, the total universe.’

Prafulla Mohanti bio

Jean-Luc Moulène's ambition in making artworks is to give viewers the sensation that they are ‘living and standing’. He first encountered Acharya Vyakul’s Tantra drawings at the Centre Georges Pompidou’s ‘Les Magiciens de la Terre’ exhibition (1989). For the Pompidou’s 2011 ‘Paris-Delhi-Bombay’, he undertook a series of complex experiments to imagine how a multi-coloured Tantra drawing might exist in three dimensions, work which continued and formed an important part of his ‘Dia Beacon’ exhibition in 2013. 'Bifurcated Figure' is a work from this series, 'bifurcated' suggestive of how one reality can stem or divide from another, existing in parallel.

Jean-Luc Moulène bio

Little is known of Badrinath Pandit, other than he was a highly regarded Sanskrit scholar and painter and it is often claimed that he was Acharya Vyakul's teacher.  He is known for his abstract renderings of shaligrams, or sacred stones said to represent the god ishnu in his many manifestations. 

Anthony Pearson first encountered Tantra drawings at an exhibition in Santa Monica in 2011. He is preoccupied with archaic forms and the way in which these Tantra drawings—their shapes and their colours—have been remade for centuries. He has developed his own distinctive visual language, based on techniques such as solarisation, which he transcribed and repeats, treating the outcome of these experiments as specimens to trigger transportational states. Art critic Jonathan Griffin has said of Pearson: ‘There is a sense that any single work of Pearson’s is only a temporary stand-in for something else, something withheld or absent, or maybe something lost altogether.’

Anthony Pearson bio

Prem Sahib's work is often characterised by strong geometry and a bold palette, and it is instinctively possible to find a neat place for Sahib in a suitable history of minimalism. Yet, this would deny the bodily and erotic dimension that runs current through all his work and that makes it so vital. In sweeping terms, the same could be said of Tantric drawings. Yet, as noted above, while they may bear similarities to Western abstraction, it must be recognised that they are born of a different tradition, one which is all-inclusive in its reach and which has bliss and ecstasy at its core.

Prem Sahib bio

Sohan Qadri was a yogi, poet and painter who lived for much of his life in Copenhagen. He abandoned representation early on in his long career and began to incorporate Tantric symbols, symbolism and philosophy into his vibrant minimalist works. It was the time he spent in silence and meditation in the Himalayas and Tibet, he said, that led him to make artworks.

Sohan Qadri bio

G. R. Santosh is one of the most well-known of the 'Neo-Tantra' artists, alongside Sohan Qadri. Originally self-taught he went on to study in Baroda at the Maharaja Sayjirao University under the artist N. S. Bendre. MSU art school was established post Indian independence and sought to distance itself from colonial predecessors and support a distinctive 'Indian' modernist aesthetic. Many in the school drew upon Indian folk traditions, and, following an experience in the Amarnath cave (a holy Hindu site in Jammu and Kashmir) in 1964, Santosh came to Tantra. Writing in the catalogue for the UCLA Neo-Tantra exhibition, he speaks of the relationship between Tantra and art: 'The universal mind (Brahman) manifests itself by its own will and when transformed in an artist's mind becomes self-creative. The individual mind of an artist has the potential to transform the visual concept into the materialised creative expression: a work of art.'

G. R. Santosh bio

It is Richard Tuttle who provided the original inspiration for this exhibition. In his 2004 – 05 Drawing Center exhibition in New York, the Drawing Room on the other side of Wooster Street had a small collection of Tantra drawings set upon a wallpaper he had designed. He has collected Tantric drawings for some time and speaking of them says: 'Very often they have been kept as a talisman by their commissioner. Both hidden from sight of the world, and connecting to the world, through an image as certain as it is unverifiable, they are a certificate free of the very thing certified, a complicated way to locate the spiritual in positive time. We, of course, just look at the image, and that makes me nervous, for it is negative, unless shown along with a valid, contemporary art practice about the positive in our culture.' The curatorial premise of Thinking Tantra shares this philosophy.

Richard Tuttle  bio

Acharya Vyakul was in Jean-Martin Hubert’s 1989 landmark exhibition ‘Magiciens de la Terre’, billed as a Tantric artist. From this time on Vyakul began exhibiting his works widely before establishing the richest private museum of folk and tantric art in India.  Kapil Jariwala wrote of him in 1998: ‘Vyakul does not paint in a studio nor does he paint everyday, perhaps only twice a year and then in a concentrated spell for two or three weeks.  He makes the paintings wherever he might be, in his house, on a walk, in a temple or in a garden.  Often using materials close to hand, paper from ancient manuscripts, cloth or waste card are painted with pigment ground from anything that will give its colour: cow dung, leaves, coffee, vermilion or coal; it isn’t unusual to find lipstick or felt-tip pens either.’ Purists don't consider Vyakul a 'Tantrika' since he authored his works.

Acharya Vyakul  bio

Claudia Wieser first encountered Tantric drawings via the publication ‘Field of Color’ while installing her 2011 exhibition at the Drawing Center in New York. Wieser’s practice has been described as one in which she instinctively ‘recuperates a mystical Modernism’. She herself makes a connection between the Tantric drawings and exercises given to students at the Bauhaus, who were given set colours and shapes with which to make new combinations. There is another connection that might be made in relation to the Bauhaus’s ambition to collapse the distinctions between artists and craftspeople, notably that Tantric drawings are not usually made by artists or as part of an artistic practice. Here, Wieser also presents sculptures. Made of simple shapes, like the drawings, they are the result of a lengthy process that involves sanding, oiling, and painting—traces of which are all left in the final versions.

Claudia Wieser bio

Nicola DurvasulaBrockley Variations 9, 2015Nicola Durvasula, Brockley Variations 9, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai