From Tantra to Tribal : Asian Art in London 2022

20 - 28 October 2022
The title for the current show, From Tantra to Tribal (i) came from reflections on the writings and artwork of the artist Jagdish Swaminathan.  One painting in particular provided the inspiration for the show. The painting is an untitled and undated work from the early 1970s, which depicts an egg-shaped form floating in a sea of grey. The cosmic egg is dissected into five planes of colour. The yellow square placed centrally within the egg is filled by a mountain and a glowing seed-like orb.  Beneath the egg, an inverted triangle, in tones of red and blue, reflects the mountainous form contained within the egg. The entire image is bordered on two sides by an aura of pure white. It is both Tantric and Tribal. 
The painting represents a pivotal moment in Swaminathan’s career that references both his early tantric inspired works and his later ‘tribal’ series.  These two sources of reference, tantric practice and tribal art, provide the bed-rock to much of Swaminathan’s work. They reflect his belief that these living traditions with ancient roots were as valid a part of the contemporary discourse as any other art movement.  In many cases he argued that they were inevitably more pertinent to the contemporary discourse in India than Western modernism, and represented a more sincere approach to art itself. 
‘In contradiction to the Western approach, the traditional Indian approach to painting space has always been geometric. This is because painting was never meant to represent reality in the naturalistic sense, it was the cogent and poetic rendering of ideal truth in terms of two-dimensional space. The fact that the modern movement in India did not take off from the spatial concepts evolved in traditional Indian paintings at once explains the poverty of its current contribution. Its future rests in a return and re-exploration of these concepts. This too, will be the beginning of the Indian contribution to 20th Century World art.‘((J. Swaminathan, The Cube and the Rectangle,  reprinted in Lalit Kala Contemporary 40, New Delhi, 1995, p.21. )
Rather than ‘trailing behind’ the West blindly following art movements that were already in vogue elsewhere, Swaminathan felt that Indian artists needed to be ‘in opposition to the ruling culture’.  Swaminathan recognised in the art of the various tribal communities that he visited a sincerity of expression and a clarity of vision that was lacking in much of what he saw amongst his art school trained colleagues.  ‘Historical progression, like the Birnam wood is an illusion: change, yes but progress no. The notion of progress in art is a pernicious doctrine. With such ideas in mind I started the work of building the museum. First I read all that I could about the folk and tribal cultures of Madhya Pradesh. In order to make the museum a live movement, I involved the art students of the state in the drive for collecting folk, and tribal art. … I of course was continuously on the move, sleeping and eating in my jeep, covering thousands of kilometres.  What an adventure it was, for me, for the students and for the hundreds of folk and tribal artists too. ‘ (J Swaminathan, The Cygan, an auto-bio note, 1993  reprinted in Lalit Kala Contemporary 40, New Delhi, 1995, p.  ) 
Swaminathan’s appreciation of both Tantric and Tribal sources did not mean that he sought to merely replicate their style in his own work, nor did he wish to encourage other artists to do the same.  ‘I am not implying at any point a literal return to Tantra, folk art, etc. but I think we have to become aware of concepts in our history that have given expression to this sensibility of oneness. If the western man is for ever concerned with his loneliness, I will say that loneliness is not disruption. It is a fact of being. To the West the lone individual is lost, the groping individual. To us he is the arrived person.’ (J. Swaminathan, An Interview with Swaminathan by Gieve Patel, reprinted in Lalit Kala Contemporary 40, New Delhi, 1995, p. 25.) 
The ‘sensibility of oneness’ is perhaps the unifying feature of both Tantric and early folk and tribal traditions. In Tantra the practitioner who successfully meditates on the yantra or bindu they have created, achieves a state in which they perceive no distinction between the individual and the cosmos, between the manifest and the unmanifest. Likewise in the work of many indigenous artists their art identifies a ‘oneness’ with nature, myth, magic and the unmanifest spirit world which, through the creative process, draws inspiration and nourishment from the deepest and most primordial roots of Indian art and culture. 
The current show intentionally places paintings by anonymous Tantric practitioners and by master artists working in traditional indigenous styles, alongside Indian and international artists to present them as equals in a vibrant and on-going contemporary discourse. I hope that Swaminathan would have approved of the exhibition. 

i - Although Swaminathan often used the word tribal to refer to the indigenous communities of rural India in his writing and lectures, he recognized the pitfalls of the word and preferred the Hindi term Adivasi. Many scholars today now prefer to use the phrase non-metropolitan. By using the term tribal in the title of the show I too recognize the potential pitfalls of the term but use it as an instantly understood umbrella term. The word is not intended in a derogatory manner to any member of any community nor is it used to imply ‘Primitive’ as outdated anthropological discourses can imply.