Tantra Song is a new book of Tantric paintings compiled by Franck Andre Jamme, one of France’s leading contemporary writers and poets.
The paintings, created by Tantrica families from Rajasttan in India, are works born out of the ancient beliefs of Tantric Hinduism. The pictures have struck a cord with readers, who have marveled at the works uncanny similarities to Western modern art, a piece by Malevich or Paul Klee or Agnes Martin perhaps, or any new work which might be seen hanging in a European or American gallery today.
Franck’s relationship with these paintings dates back some thirty years, his interest and imagination being fired after discovering two thin volumes featuring the pictures in a dusty Parisian bookshop, presented alongside texts by his hero Henri Michaux, the experimental Belgian poet. “I thought those very first pictures were great, amazing, and quite incredible,” says Franck, “but I wanted to know what these images precisely meant and there were no books on that.”
Many visits to India followed as Franck attempted to find the Rajasttan families responsible for the art, one such trip ending in a Parisian hospital bed after a horrific bus crash on the road to Jaipur. On a return trip Franck was advised to visit a holyman in Udaipur, a soothsayer, who gave him two addresses of Tantrica families on two conditions, firstly that he would only profit from the paintings enough to make a simple living and secondly that he visited the families only with a true love. “From time to time the second condition has been quite problematic,” says Franck, “because people who I liked very much wanted to come with me and I was obliged to say no, you are not my love.”
I talked to Franck about the meaning behind this artwork, the intoxicating magic of India and the collective human search for self expression.
After you discovered these pictures in Paris you embarked on a search across India to find the artists behind the work, a search which had its fair share of drama, but ultimately you saw a holy man, an astrologer, who helped to point you in the right direction?
I was told I could go and see a holy man in Jaipur and that he could help me in my search. He was kind of a sooth sayer, an astrologist, and he told me that I had not to be too frightened by the past or the future, and finally gave me two addresses of Tantrica families in Rajasthan.
And you had to promise him two things, firstly, you would only visit the families with a person you truly loved.
Yes. From time to time that has been quite problematic, because people who I liked very much wanted to come with me and I was obliged to say no, you are not my love! And the second thing I promised was that I could show this work and I could sell these things, but only to the extent that I would be making a basic living from them. This has been a struggle, especially with galleries in the United States, in France even, who were always thinking that the price of the work was too small.
What were the families like? Were they very inviting, did they want you to share this work with the world?
As soon as I had the first addresses I went to the two families and I told them very frankly what I was searching for. I wanted to know what all these pictures meant precisely and there were no books about that. I think the recommendation from the man in Jaipur, althought I didn’t see it immediately, was a very holy recommendation, so the first mood I was met with was one of confidence.
And what do these pictures mean to somebody who is practicing Tantric Hinduism? The pictures are depictions of Goddesses and deities aren’t they?
In fact there are not too many Gods involved in Tantracism, but if you see an oval shape it’s the goddess Shiva and if you see a triangle it’s Kali. The art is mainly used for meditation, because there is a hidden side to these pictures which is very aesthetic.
What kind of materials do the families use to put these pictures together, I read that it was generally very natural materials that are used?
They try to find, like so many other traditional painters, old paper, although the paper they often use is not that old, it’s paper made thirty or forty years ago. This is mainly because the new paper in India is not terribly good, so they like older pieces, very often they use pages were there is writing on one side. All these people are quite free; they will use what they find.
What about the colours they use, do they have a particular meaning?
There are a lot of rules with this kind of Tantric painting, but they respect the colours, if they want to express consciousness they are not going to put a red on a square, they are going to put a light blue.
And what have people’s reactions to the paintings been? You brought them back to France in the first instance?
Yes, I brought them to France especially for an exhibition called Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the Earth) at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1989, which was a very well-known exhibition, a historical exhibition displaying contemporary art and craft from all over the world. It was in fact the first time that a very big show of this type of art was brought together, Aboriginal art from Australia for example and Tantric art, very subtle contemporary scenes, it was a very beautiful exhibition.
What do you think about the comparisons that have been made between the Tantric art and Western modern art, there are comparisons to be seen in the simplicity of both I suppose?
Oh yes, it was very touching to discover in a small village in India a piece by Malevich, it was too much really! But abstraction is very natural after all, four or five centuries before this art came to the western world, there had been some very modern pattern produced. There has been found in Orissa in India a form of poetry existing from medieval times which is very close in form to Haiku poetry from Japan, very short pieces with the very same number of syllables. That is very fascinating because in medieval times people from Orissa in India didn’t get too much news from Japan! I think there is a kind of collective hidden human search for expression, for example the yodel from Switzerland, well you have exactly the same thing in the North of Vietnam. Abstraction is just very natural, across the continents.
What do these pictures mean to you personally? Is it the beauty of the pictures or the spirituality which appeals more to you?
I don’t and I can’t adore or worship Kali for example, even if my respect and admiration is so great for her. No, it is the mix of simplicity and depth in the art which attracted me and it was exactly what I was searching for in my own art, in my own writing. It was just so good to find brothers and sisters like that. And of course it was Indian in a sense, but it was also universal, I was a bit like a fish in the river with it all. Which is funny because people often asked Henri Mixchau about his interest in Chinese ink drawings and he very often replied that this work was just extremely natural to him and the interviewer would ask, “but Mr Michaux do you speak Chinese?” And he would go “no, no, I don’t speak Chinese!” It really is beyond the language and that is very strange and a little bit magical. I think Michaux could say that he was just a fish in the river too.
What is it that attracts you to India, is it the natural magic in the air that still seems to exist there?
The first time I went to India was at the beginning of the 1980s, I was going to Nepal, and I’m not Buddhist at all, but I wanted to see the real Tibetans’, and at that time the border with Tibet was closed, but there were very big camps of refuges in Nepal. They are very interesting people the Tibetans, because they look a little bit like Indian Americans, they have that same way with their hair, kind of like Buddhist Geronimos’, and I wanted to see that. On the way to Nepal we had a stop in India and that was my first visit and really, ever since, I’ve been haunted by India. Perhaps by the smell, the first thing to entrance me was the smell, when you get off the plane you just get something in your nose which is so brilliant and rich and incredible. I wasn’t into any of this journey stuff, often associated with trips to India, yoga and gurus, it was not like that.
And what interested you in the Tantric school of Hinduism in particular?
What I love especially about these Tantric people is that in a country which is full of rules and regulations, especially in Hinduism which is such a complicate faith, they are so free! There is a kind of Libertarian body of thought. I think I’m a bit like that. For example you arrive in an average Hindu family household and the women, the girls, they are always a bit apart, and you arrive in a Tantric family and, well, the girls and the women and the old ladies, all these beautiful beings are just on exactly the same level as the men. In a Hindu family you won’t eat with the ladies of the house, they are going to serve you, but that is all.
A lot of traditional Hindus’ are very sceptical about Tantracism aren’t they?
Sceptical and a bit afraid, Tantracsim can sound a bit devilish to them because there is so much freedom, they are afraid of freedom, it’s so classic, it’s the standard for humanity, all these people who are afraid of freedom.