What is modernism? And what is modernist art? The images here look strikingly like 20th century modernism – Malevich, Miro, Kandinsky, Klee, El Lissitzky, or more recent artists such as Agnes Martin. In fact they come from seventeenth century Rajasthan, in India, and were created within the Hindu Tantric tradition. The images draw upon key symbols of Tantric cosmogony, such as the bindu, a dot symbolizing the undifferentiated absolute, to the negative space of the shunya, the absolute void of the supreme deity. Adepts paint, in tempera, gouache, and watercolor, in a concentrated state of mental rapture, and the painting are used as a ritual aid for meditation. They have been collected by a number of Western artists, most notably the French poet Franck André Jamme, whose Tantric art collection has been published by Sligo Press.
There is something quite stunning about the poetic minimalism of these paintings and about their affinity to 20th century abstract art. This has led some to suggest that we need to reassess what we mean by ‘modernism’, and in particular about Western modernism. The fact that ‘such modern, occidental-looking patterns already existed in India during the 17th century’, Jamme himself suggests, shows ‘that our notion of progress – past, present, and future – is not correct’ and that ‘abstract art is not necessarily a Western, nineteenth-century art-historical development. It dates back to Native American, Tibetan, and Australian Aboriginal sand painting, for sure.’
But, as the Indian artist and blogger Debu Barve has pointed out, while ‘It is uncanny to see the “resemblance” these paintings have with many of the modern art’, that ‘does not mean that these paintings are a result of a conscious art practice from ancient Tantrism. These are instead the outcome of ritualistic processes.’ And ‘when art serves as a component of ritualism, the questioning stops and so does its evolution.’ Questioning, Barve suggests, is an essential aspect of art:
Questioning could be about the elements, process or even technique; it could be a public thing or a personal practice. We would not have seen the change in art during the Renaissance if artists, despite predominantly serving religion, had not challenged themselves. Masaccio, Mantegna, Da Vinci, Raphael or El Greco, would have created the same imagery again and again.
As ritual, Tantric art, Barve argues, is not about questioning and change but about acceptance and conservation:
I have my doubts as to whether the people who are creating these works have ever asked themselves why something is represented as an oval or a triangle, or why a certain color has been used. They understand it ritualistically and follow it from generation to generation.
I would not want to dismiss Tantric paintings as simply ‘ritual’ rather than ‘art’. The definitions of both are complex and the relationship between the two even more so. Much art that serves as, or developed out of, ritual – from cave paintings to Christian icons, from Native American masks to Islamic patterns – we would recognize as art, or at least possessing elements of artistic practice . What is true, however, is that Trantric art tells us little about modernism, Indian or otherwise. Its ‘modernism’ is an anomaly, albeit a profoundly poetic anomaly. There is a vibrant tradition of Indian modernism from Nasreen Mohadmedi to MF Husain that is often ignored in the West. This movement picks up on motifs and ideas and practices of earlier Indian traditions and reworks them in a modernist fashion. But Tantric art is not part of this tradition, nor has Indian modernism developed in any sense from Tantric art. Indian modernism has emerged, rather, as has all modernism, from the revolutionary changes in artistic consciousness and practice that developed in Europe and elsewhere in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
In the wake of the modernist transformation of artistic consciousness, ‘abstraction’ inevitably means something different to us than it would have to premordernist artists and public. And it means something different to us as art than it would have meant to devotees as an aspect of ritual. And yet the fact that such Tantric art does speak to us, and speaks to us seemingly in the idiom of modernism, tells us something about the way that we use art to discover meaning, and about both the universal aspects of the ways in which we wrest meaning from the world around us, and its distinctive, historically-bound modes.
I might post something on Indian modernism soon. In the meantime, enjoy the poetic beauty of non-modernist Tantric art from seventeenth century Rajasthan.The paintings are taken mostly from the Sligo Press collection Tantra Song.