Feature Inc
276 BOWERY NYC 10012   212.675.7772   feature@featureinc.com
Tantra Text


Excerpted from "Tantra," with text by Franck Andre Jamme, published by Galerie du Jour in 1995.

The thought has often occurred to me that perhaps never in the universal history of painting, have works at once so mysterious and simple, yet so powerful and pure ever been produced - a bit as if, here, man’s genius had been able to assemble almost everything in almost nothing.



1 - I have always been persuaded that the eye could experience a kind of thrill.

2 - However, from the outset, a bit of classification. In India, there are, shall we say, three kinds of tantric painting. First, those that have come under the influence of Jainism : instantly recognizable, they are usually painted on silk or fine cloth, and are at times, quite large. Representing different aspects of Jain culture, they are rich, garish, constellated with geometric forms, stylized figures and writing. One finds them in southern Rajasthan and the Gujarat- and along with some erotic painting, in the ‘tantrism’ section, when they have one, of art shops throughout the country. Next are the popular Hindu paintings. They are cruder, wilder ; the term tantra-folk was invented for them. They are generally on paper ; but any surface allowing paint strokes, walls, floors even planks will suffice. Though they are more rare, one encounters them across northern India and in some parts of Kerala in the south. Finally, there are the Hindu paintings that could be deemed ‘classics’. Originally from manuscripts that they actually illuminated, those presented here always remain small, are always on paper and said to be the most sought after.

3- Tradition distinguishes the geometric and abstract pieces from the more or less ‘representative’ ones. According to the savours they reveal and are able to induce in the initiate’s spirit, they are divided into three types : the ‘serene and sublime’, the ‘dynamic and active’, and the ‘terrifying’.

4- Our first introduction to these paintings was in a gallery catalogue. An exhibition had been staged at the Point Cardinal in 1970. In a bookseller’s rack a few years later, the names Michaux and Paz (who offered in the short volume, a poem and a text) attracted us like a magnet.

5- As far as climatic condition and poor conservation permit us to affirm, these representations first appeared during the 17th century in hand-written tantric treatises, tantras. In any case, the oldest we know of date from that epoch. Needless to say, earlier ones may have vanished forever, laid waste by the incessant work of insects, rats, monsoons and sheer carelessness.

6- They were copied out in these treatises, time and again throughout the ages. But they were also copied independently of the texts, on single pages and became pure autonomous supports for meditation amongst families, groups practising tantric ritual or in the knapsacks of those who renounce the world. It is these that interest us.

7- It’s impossible to find one of these wonders in southern India, unless you discover it through a dealer. Everything really happens in the north ; in Kashmir, Bengal or Rajasthan. Above all, in the state of Rajasthan. Perhaps because this state, of all the sub-continent, remains the heart of painting. (It is also said that more squirrels, those little devils whose fur is used to make brushes, inhabit the land of the Rajpouts.)

8- How strange, in this land so baroque, and so effusive, to find these images so concise, nearly dry.

9- Tantrism rejects speculation. It recommends practice... the exercises : recitation of the mantras, breathing and kundalini work, sexual union and visualizations (of these paintings among other things), active meditation in which the adept will actually identify himself with the image under his gaze and through it, with the deity it represents.

10- Extreme, this great and old spiritual (and initiatic) current according to which we are in a ‘Dark Age’. To liberate ourselves during this lifetime, to acquit ourselves well in this life while dominating it, we can only try to comprehend, to awaken and direct the dormant energy within us - precisely the same force that animates the world, Shakti, the Goddess.

11- From now on action, direct experience in and through the world (whose reality is, therefore, total) are the bywords. Even if it means employing magic at times. Asceticism is banished for good.

12- To go as far as an undeniable odour of sulphur : for example when it is strongly recommended to the initiates, whether men or women, of certain tantrikas groups to immerse themselves in impurity and social transgression in order to liberate dark forces, the pernicious but terribly operative taboos, which in turn liberate the adept.

13- To go so far as to cultivate secrecy, inherent in all initiate societies. Brother of our ‘cabale’, or the ancient ‘langue des oiseaux’, used by European alchemists at the zenith of their investigations, the language used in some treatises is largely coded or ‘intentional’ as the texts themselves describe it.

14- To go so far as to acquire strange powers... like hearing their hair or their nails grow- or directing their dreams and traveling through them at will.

15- Let’s return to the images - even if all this about tantrism is far too brief. From their origins they are anonymous. Given that they are not pure creations, but, from generation to generation, ‘revisitations’ of old themes, this tradition seems correct. Even so, they are rarely executed by amateurs who pick up a brush one Sunday ; not infrequently, they are produced (one by one) in traditional painting studios whose main activity is still the famous ‘miniatures’.

16- Marvellously anonymous. Like an antidote or balm in this world where everything seems especially made for the swelling of the ego.

17- And what of these scattered notes, or the graceless copy of this blue piece where a hundred arrows turn and dance?

18- Out there, those who still practise the ritual get hold of one of these paintings, and pin or paste it up at home on their altar to meditate. It fades, wrinkles and ages - until it is replaced by another fresher one.

19- Not to mention that there are collectors of these things even in India would be a lie by omission. Moreover, most of what we know about tantric art comes from one collector, Ajit Mookerjee, who was also an adept. One could assert this man’s passion, in fact, ‘invented’ the art. Please understand. The pieces obviously existed before. But he assembled and founded a collection. From almost nothing, from solitary, scattered bits, he amassed a veritable body of work. At times, he even went too far, aging certain pieces, or shifting their geographic origins. Even today, one cannot understand, essentially, why. By all evidence, he was a rare and complex man.

20- Then we have the ‘foreigners’ like ourselves who, steeped since childhood in the river of this century’s art, and for whom at the very moment of discovery and in spite of our ignorance, these pieces seem immediately familiar. Like mother’s milk.

21- Like the infancy of art. Indeed, crystal clear.

22- Like the infancy, moreover, of our own art. Seeming not only present, but even contemporary.

23- Striking, this proximity to contemporary occidental productions. All one has to do is to slip into an exhibition and listen. It’s amusing how quickly visitors mention the names of well known European and American painters. Either these images are ageless : or there is a common part to man’s spirit, regardless of the epoch ; or these paintings formally announced from birth what would one day appear - hence, everything was already there.

24- Some, glibly use the term ‘copies’. I prefer ‘interpretations’ or better still, since after all, we are speaking about India, ragas. Even if the structure, the rules, of each of these images is similar one to the other, their lines, colouring and dimensions differ subtly according to the state of calm, concentration and delight that guided the hand on that particular day.

25- Unlike the gestures, postures and mantras, which have long been codified, and with the extreme precision of which India is capable (seeming to have always had an unparalleled passion for detail and classification) the meaning, as far as we know, of these images is not strictly fixed. Probably because painters are always consummate in the art of taking liberties. No doubt, they have done that with what was surely at one time the original cannon. Moreover, we don’t have systematic translations of the treatises that contained these images (in particular, we would have to know if the text was commentary on the images, or if the images illustrated the text). In any case, it is all astounding. It would seem that not a single researcher has seriously looked into their precise symbolism. Generally, books on tantric art, naturally those of Mookerjee and his disciples spring first to mind, remain judiciously brief on the subject of specific meanings. One dreams of knowing more. Numerous meetings with painters, amateurs, scholars and even some initiates have been necessary to extract by cross-reference a common interpretation. But, we may never have come across the true fonts of knowledge. Who knows?

26- Here’s for your knapsack, in any case. A few travelling rations. Black indicates the night of the world. Blue is consciousness. The lighter, the purer. Spirals and arrows symbolize energy. Inverted triangles depict the Goddess.

27- Ours are the footsteps of an amateur. Ardent, but amateur. Obviously, we should push on with the work, the research. First, a knowledge of Sanskrit is necessary for reading and translating the manuscripts that contain these ‘illustrations’. Then, let’s say, one ought to have experience in meditation on these pieces according to the rules and under the guidance of a master, a guru. Unfortunately, the principle of reality has not yet put at our disposal either a single exhaustive study on these paintings, or a single written testimony concerning the inner voyages originating from guided practice of their active contemplation. That will be for another life, I’m afraid.

28- Fortunately, tradition is neither that restrictive nor foolish. In addition to the knowledge of Sanskrit and the ritual, one must have a good eye.

29- At times, in Europe as well as in India, one is warned that basically these pieces are tools of interior development and that it would be inappropriate to expose them too much in galleries and museums, or to associate them too explicitly with aesthetics. Though these people are not entirely mistaken, the question is not so simple. Tradition has always affirmed that beauty is a reflection of the divine ; that the highest echo of reality be visible following the highest artistic criteria. So, as usual, no one is totally correct, as though truth, with its two wings, remains eternally a pure creature of flight.

30- In any case, there’s no law against finding our marvels beautiful. Even if their original purpose, or simply their purpose, is to induce and aid in meditation. Their sole function remains to open breaches in the spirit of the observer and take him to a higher plan of consciousness, eventually to enlightenment. But then what appears, if not another kind of beauty?

31- Perhaps we are wrong when we speak of beauty since it seems to us that these paintings evoke, quite simply, truth. In their very abstraction they reveal themselves as sorts of represented thoughts - strange thoughts that choose, in place of words, to express themselves in form and colour.

32- In one of his books, Ajit Mookerjee speaks of a metaphysical field of vision in connection with these pieces. He was a master. Even though he was a master, and one’s expectations of masters are high, I believe no one will ever express it more aptly.

33- But, who really created these images ? Impossible to know. And it’s really not important. That’s merely for our modern occidental obsession with names and faces (and thus the ‘added’ value) to regret.

34- While we’re at it, another source of regret concerns the age of these paintings. There are those who, for mainly mercantile reasons, would have them all ‘antique’...who would have this be a lost art, just to be shared out between an elite.

35- But rather, let’s return to our first purpose. We can only suppose that these beings resembled their children, their works, as pure, in the moment of creation, as their images.

36- Imagine : suddenly, after weeks, months, perhaps years of evoking the Goddess for example, her arms, her legs, her jutting tongue and terrifying gaze, all was precipitation - in both senses of the word. All was feverishly resolved in a simple inverted triangle. And this triangle not only contained but became every petal of the evocation, legs, arms, strength. Not one petal was lacking. Abstraction.

37- Abstraction. To abbreviate. To see it all, finally, together.

38- Some more of our history : though our first impression of these works was strong, even overwhelming, it took a dozen years and quite a few voyages to begin to clarify and discover, little by little, the studios where these rarities were painted. I mean the worthwhile studios, this one or that one where the blues, the dancing arrows, or the arrangement of things was alive. Not often the same studio. But all that time, all those steps, were only normal.

39- Besides, I’ve known those who were too hasty out there. Perhaps they lacked time. In India like elsewhere, it’s advisable to stay two or three weeks in the same street to get to know a few of the inhabitants. I remember one spring afternoon some years ago in a spacious apartment overlooking a canal in one of Holland’s large cities, I was shown a whole collection of these paintings. They had been hastily acquired, with a kind of delicious and blind excitement, the kind travellers feel when striking a quick and overly facile bargain. Travellers from rich countries all know what it’s like. The man who showed us these things was still excited, as proud of his loot as on the first day. But, believe me, this sad treasure had no life, no movement. It was like dead butterflies pinned in boxes.

40- One thing is certain. The little we do know, the smattering, we’ve learned in the field, slowly - picked up first hand - from a sparkle in the eye - from a shake of the head that meant approval or rejection. Was the piece right or not. Did it have, like a copper wire, the power to conduct, even for neophytes, like ourselves ?

41- Of course, books, with their richness and their number, have been invaluable, but always with the same regret : what to do with those pages that explain, among other things, the essentially vibratory character of your own thoughts, acts and relationships with others, your entire life... with hardly a shiver, a flush, a palpitation, without movement themselves ; without ever moving you ? Perhaps the authors just never lived the subject. One could rightly reply that it wasn’t their purpose ; research doesn’t imply firsthand knowledge. Or, simply they didn’t know how to express it. In fact, all we ever wanted to know was what really happened.

42- An eye and a thrill to open these notes. After the first tingle, everything happens beyond the gaze, actually, more deeply. Perhaps, we have now had a glimpse. It all happens when only after reflection, the glow of the object viewed

in the spirit.

43- Tirelessly I continue observing these images. Strange, they’re a bit stiff, almost all of them a bit studious, too well behaved, quite static. Even so, nearly all of them tingle and vibrate.

44- Time and time again, they vibrate. It depends also on who is looking. Of course. Any work needs a sort of family. A mother and a father, at the least. A mother : the painter. A father : the spectator.

45- There are black ones, red ones, browns, yellow or striped ones. True. But if we associate them with one colour, eternally, it would be blue. Sky blue. Awareness blue. Pure blue. Azure.

46- So free, aren't they ? Under their strict cloak of form and colour.

47- And yet again, you could say that the painter’s brush, almost every time, is transformed into an arrow. And that the arrow, almost every time, has struck the centre of the target.

48- No small talk. No feeling of effort either. Simply a kind of very discreet but very sure perfection, without the slightest grandiloquence or comment.

49- Painted silences. Nearly. Facing this slick, glib world. But we’ve always known that few words, few notes, few lines are necessary to breath l’essentiel.


Minute wild things
That shine


a- From the family of shaligrams, or round forms, this one indicates, in the blue sky of consciousness, the possibility of dialogue, in the form of a luminous line, between our endarkened world and the spiral of energy. The latter, correctly led, will permit the adept to ‘breach’ the former, to deceive, and to escape it.

b- These two, which constitute a pair, not easily separable, are perhaps derived from the kind of simple stamps used to print lines - lines for writing straight in a notebook or on loose pages. The original function has been overshot, forgotten, giving birth to a meditation on the four directions. So, under the effects of concentration, everything visible can fundamentally be resumed in a few vertical or horizontal elliptical lines - the marks of mastery.

c- A strange linga with a heart-shaped head where atoms and the colours of the manifestation dance on a background of consciousness. It designates one of the phases of the world’s movement. According to the occasional accompanying text, it speaks also of the alliance between Vishnu and Shiva.

d- Depicted here, the ‘illustrious fish’ (the small blue fork representating one of the ten incarnations of Vishnu) is descending into our dark world - dark, but nevertheless, under the seal of energy (the many-coloured spiral).

e- This represents the passage of the lifeblood of energy in ourselves and in the world. We have seen one variation where the colours are simply inverted, and in which the feminine principle, Prakriti (who is also this energy and the Goddess, Shakti) becomes more radiance than blood.

f- Beige whites on a dark blue background, or bright red on dark brown, the arrows express here the incessant dance of energy. The origin of this piece could well be one of those metal stamps used to print ritual cloth (very old ones have been found made of metal arrows on a wooden base). The key remains meditation on the active principle of all manifestations, or in a word, movement. Life’s movement.

g- Energy is indicated here in the form of a spiral travelling through and regulating the colours of the world. One can also read into it the representation of the cosmic form of the god Vishnu (tantrism having been propagated throughout all Hinduism, its titular gods, Shakti and Shiva, are not the sole divinities concerned in the ritual).

h- Another image of the divinity precipitated into her own sex, further, in its terrifying and dark manifestation. The name of one of the better known figures of Shakti, Kali, signifies ‘the Black One’. Her force is destructive. As an ancient treatise notes, ‘Just as all names and forms disappear in Her, all colours disappear into black.’ Here the most sinister colour is redoubled. Energy employs nothing more nor less than the weapons of the world : darkness marches once again upon the night.

i- Even though stripes are not unknown in India (at times red and white stripes of considerable length decorate the exterior walls of immense Vishnuist temples in the south) this piece is quite rare. It depicts the world’s two poles united. Their multiplication and dialogue are constant. Day and night. Light and darkness. Stillness and movement. Shiva and Shakti.

j- This piece demonstrates the eternal and frenetic race of the feminine principle, evidently arrested here, towards its masculine homologue. Quite rare and quite free. In this case, Shakti’s triangle is in motion and is not pointing downwards as tradition would normally have it.

k- Another image of the Goddess. Having journeyed through the blue of consciousness, she confines herself finally to her source, her centre : her sex. The tip of energy’s arrow depicts her centre inside the square. We know of one variation, more explicit, where the tip of the arrow is replaced by a tiny golden triangle, pointing downwards. Both versions are similar, since Shakti is energy.

l- Rare seldom shown. Of this there are several variants, some even lighter, nearly white. This piece depicts the universal manifestation, always in evolution.

m- A linga, or phallic form. It evokes the masculine principle, Purusha, and in the couple Shakti-Shiva, the God himself. On the other hand, the monochrome brown evokes the colour and excremental essence of our world.

n- This series points out the expansion and evolution of bindu, the primal drop in repose which contains the total manifestation - the manifestation which will in turn resolve back to the same drop, to one day return again, and so on. The second image shows the three gunas (the three ‘qualities’ which are sattva, rajas and tamas : essence, energy and matter). The third is union of the two first ones. The fourth is dissemination.

o- One could hardly dream an image briefer than this one. The simple revelation of pure consciousness - hence, the lightness of the blue.

FEATURE INC.  212.675.7772  featureinc@featureinc.com