Edith Tonelli, director of UCLA's Frederick S. Wight Gallery, was in a bind. By exhibiting eight contemporary Indian artists whose work is inspired by tantra--a philosophy and collection of meditational methods practiced by subsects of the Hindu and Buddhist religions--she was faced with minting a phrase that would simultaneously describe the little-known art movement's heritage and modernity.
How about neo -tantra?
"The term we were using for a long time was new tantra," Tonelli said in her office at the gallery, where the exhibit runs through Feb. 2 as part of the nationwide Festival of India. "What that term felt like to me was that this was tantra--but it was new. There is tantra going on right now in India, made by people called tantrics, that is contemporary but practiced as a religion. My feeling is that this art (on exhibit) is not tantra but related to it, coming out of it in some way."
"We're readapting the use of the word neo ," said the show's co-curator, UCLA art professor Lee Mullican.
The paintings that the two curators gathered (with the help of L. P. Sihare, director of the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi) are dynamic bursts of vibrant blues, greens, yellows, reds, purples and pinks. The abstract works, which share threads of symmetry, archetypal figures and geometric shapes, are based (to varying degrees) on tantric principles, specifically the unity of the male ( Shiva ) and female ( Shakti ) to attain enlightenment.
"The thing that interested us about tantra was that we felt it was a universal art," Tonelli said. "The concepts the artists deal with--nature, spirit, the universe--appeal to a broad range of people. You can look at these paintings without knowing anything about tantra and have a reaction to them."
In coordinating the show, which draws mainly from works belonging to the National Gallery, Mullican and Tonelli discarded the idea of a large survey exhibition. Survey shows, including numerous representations of contemporary Indian art banded together under the nebulous tantric label, had been attempted twice before, with mixed results--in Stuttgart, West Germany, and at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington.
"We decided after looking at the catalogue for Germany's show that we wanted a more consistent look," Tonelli said. "There is a place for survey shows, but this material is so unfamiliar to Americans that to bring all of this stuff together in one place can be more confusing than helpful. I thought it was going to be difficult enough for the public to relate to this material, to begin to understand it, that bringing over 30 or 40 artists was only going to cause more problems."
Each painter in the exhibition (G. R. Santosh, P. T. Reddy, K.C.S. Paniker, Biren De, Om Prakash, K. V. Haridasan, Prafulla Mohanti and Mahirwan Mamtani) has a room at the gallery devoted exclusively to his art, resulting in eight abbreviated retrospectives.
"Within each artist's work we wanted to get some chronological range," Tonelli said. "Most of these artists have been developing their styles and ideas for 15 to 20 years. What you're seeing is a mature style for most of these artists.
"These artists are very contemporary, very modern. They know what's happened (in art), yet they're trying to use their own culture as well. A lot of Indian artists are trying to get that integration--being modern, and coming out of a culture that's centuries old."
Contemporary Indian art did not develop until the 1940s, when India gained independence from the British. During the '40s and '50s, Indian artists sought to reclaim their identity by painting in a more traditional style or painting what was in their environment. Painters in the neo-tantric tradition--working in different parts of India and, in some instances, different parts of the world--were not recognized as a school until 10 years ago, although the father of the movement, Paniker, had been painting in this style since the late '50s.
Neo-tantra is not the dominant art form in India. In attempts to give the show's viewers a broader perspective, the curators created a slide show featuring the works of other contemporary Indian artists.
"It's only a small part of what's going on in India," Mullican said of the neo-tantra tradition. "But it's the only thing you could say is a movement there. Everything else is so general. There may be a South India school, or something like that having to do with an area, but tantra brings in everything."
Tonelli, who has prepared a thorough exhibition catalogue explaining tantra--neo and otherwise--admits that "tantra is a little bit vague in the sense that spiritual things are." "It's metaphysical," Mullican concluded. "Without the mystery, who cares about it? There wouldn't be an exhibition if there wasn't a mystery behind it."