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What is Tantric Art*?

*There are somewhat of subdivisions within the classification of Tantric Art - Buddhist Tantric art that pertains mostly to Himalayan, Nepalese and Tibetan regions. Here, I am talking about a specific 'style' from India, as even on the subcontinent there are variations depending on the region.

Plate 11 from Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, edited by Franck André Jamme, published by Siglio, 2011

I first stumbled upon Tantric Art through Franck André Jammer's Tantra Song by Siglio Press; the quiet and powerful energy contained in these humble forms was what drew me to them. They seemed to contain entire worlds within them but little is known about them outside of the enclaves in which they are produced. Produced is also the wrong word; they are made by Tantrikas - those 'practitioners' devoted to the art of Tantra.

What is Tantra? Translating to woven in Sanskrit, it refers to meshing of humanity and the divine. In Western discourse it has often been tied mainly to sex as a more spiritual way of physical connection, which is but one aspect of how the practice of Tantra can be utilized in our lives.

Jammer first chanced upon these paintings in a Parisian Gallery catalogue in the 1970s and noted the uncanny similarity to modernist art of the West. Could this be a predecessor?

After a near fatal bus accident put an abrupt stop to Jammer's first journey to India to find the origin of these paintings, it was ironically this very accident that allowed him to fulfill his quest. Jammer's suffering was deemed a sizeable tribute worthy of the goddess Shakti, and as such he was allowed to gain access to the closed off Tantrika communities. Jammer has also noted the trope of the foreigner who goes over "too quickly", too excited to acquire these artworks. This is not to suggest counterfeits, but rather a sort of greedy desire at a superficial aesthetic level.

It seems the origin of this 'artwork style' is dated as far back as the 17th century, drawn as accompaniment to handwritten verses as part of the practice of Tantra. As time passed, the visuals earned their right as meditational tools independent of these verses. They can be found on the walls of Tantrika homes, or as portable stimulus for nomadic ascetics.

Left: Plate 16 - an iteration of the Shiva Linga - an emblematic representation of the God Shiva, made in the form of the masculine member.

Right: Plate 20 - "Amidst the most perfect silence and calm - in a kind of milky dream - the discrete presence of an equally perfect inversion, so dear to Tantrism: here the spiral turns the "wrong" way. A quiet struggle against a crazed energy? Some obstinately speak only of calm or peace, but could the tantrika perhaps simply have been left handed?"

Both from Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, edited by Franck André Jamme, published by Siglio, 2011

These simple forms have been reproduced over centuries, and in doing so have developed a sort of visual language as you would see in hieroglyphics. That is not to say that they are entirely decipherable, but Jammer has attempted to put vague interpretations together through conversations with many scholars and adepts.

"Spirals and arrows symbolize energy.

Triangles pointing downward depict the Goddess.

Plate 10: "Somewhat of a mystery. A few clues: everything revolves around two axes - on one hand the birth of speech and on the other the granting of wishes. The two, perhaps, are to be mingled, or turned inside out, thus: birth of wishes and granting of speech."

From Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, edited by Franck André Jamme, published by Siglio, 2011

As your eyes narrow and you sink into your meditative state, the simple pulsating forms become a guideline to more fully-fledged visuals that can take you into these reflective spaces. The relative cleanliness of these forms stands in contrast with the handmade, stained surface of the papers they adorn - almost as a way to ground themselves in humanity. They remind me of the earthen walls these paintings will cover, the hands that will clasp in front of them in an attempt to widen consciousness. What truths do these paintings help uncover?

As a tool for inner guidance and spiritual practice, the intention is not for them to be displayed in a gallery so as to define an ‘aesthetic’, although they certainly are worthy of it. The fact that beauty can emanate from such a practical tool makes them all the more valuable and grounding.

What I do love is the way that they have been described as part of an 'egoless' practice - there is no fuss of artist attribution as these artworks are there to be a guide or heirloom; claiming ownership would almost make redundant the purpose they are created to achieve. As Jammer himself says, "in such an ego-centered world as ours, I find this anonymity extraordinarily delightful and touching".

They are a true testament to the power of visuals, filling in for where words can't on a highly spiritual level. It is this regaling and use of abstract imagery that I find inspiring.

This practice of Tantric Art has been a partial inspiration in the upcoming H e a l collection by Studio MUDRA in its pursuit to create a stimulating visual language of its own; including gratitude and peace and presence as its main keystones.

I have just scratched the surface and there is little information that has been publicly disseminated about these abstract Tantric paintings, but my main source of information for this blogpost as mentioned above was:

- Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, edited by Franck André Jamme, published by Siglio, 2011

Exhibition Catalogues from shows curated by Franck Andre Jammer may be helpful too:

- Field of Color: Tantra Drawings from India (Drawing Papers 50) New York: The Drawing Center, 2004

- L'Inde, marges: dessins tantriques (Carnets d'etudes 2). Paris: École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, 2005

- Searchlight: Consciousness at the Millenium. London: Thames & Hudson, 1999 (curated by Lawrence Rinder)

- Shiva Linga. New York: Feature Inc., 2008

- Tantra. Paris: Galerie du Jour Agnès b., 1994

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