Sex please, we’re the British Museum: Tantra exhibition to open

Curator assures the public that stereotype-busting show will not include Sting or Kama Sutra

Forget “no sex please, we’re British”. More a case of “there will be lots of sex, we’re the British Museum”. But the curator has assured the public the first major UK exhibition to explore Tantra won’t be the “pleasure for the sake of pleasure” kind, nor what Sting suggested he was up to in his seven-hour lovemaking sessions.

Instead, the exhibition, announced by the museum on Thursday, will explore Tantra, a set of beliefs and rituals that began in 6th-century India.

Curator Imma Ramos said whenever she mentioned she was working on a Tantra exhibition people either said “Is it the Kama Sutra?” or “Is it what Sting practises?” The answer is neither.

Sting has long been associated with enjoying marathon tantric sex sessions because of an interview he gave in 1990. He later backtracked, telling the Guardian in 2013 that he was drunk and was just trying to wind up the journalist.

Ramos said it was a salacious stereotype and misunderstanding of Tantra in any case, similar to imagining the Kama Sutra was part of it.

A sculpture of a yogini made in about AD900 in Kanchipuram, northern Tamil Nadu, India
A sculpture of a yogini made in about AD900 in Kanchipuram, northern Tamil Nadu, India. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

“Tantra is very much about harnessing desire in order to ultimately transcend it and also to embrace all aspects of the body, all aspects of the sensual, to generate power.

“It is a very different approach to the erotic and to the idea of desire. It is not about pleasure for its own sake, which the Kama Sutra is.”

Ramos said Tantra was usually, in the west, equated with sex or yoga “but it should be understood as part of a broader philosophy of transgression”. That said, there will be sex and yoga in the more than 100 objects in the show, just not the stereotypes.

Tantra takes its name from sacred instructional texts, often written in the form of a conversation between a god and a goddess.

Among the objects on display will be four of the earliest Tantra manuscripts, made in Nepal around the 12th century and loaned by Cambridge University Library.

A major thrust of the exhibition will be the importance of divine feminine power and challenging the perception of womanhood as passive and docile. It will be a show with lots of remarkable objects showing fearsome goddesses trampling over fragile men.

They include a 9th-century sandstone temple relief from Madhya Pradesh depicting the ferocious goddess Chamunda dancing on a corpse.

In the 19th century Tantra became a tool for Indian revolutionaries fighting British colonial rule, with goddesses such as Kali becoming symbols of independence.

Housewives with Steak-knives by Sutapa Biswas, 1985
Housewives with Steak-knives by Sutapa Biswas, 1985, shows Tantra’s continuing gender relevance. Photograph: Sutapa Biswas/British Museum

One striking sculpture from 1890 shows a terrifying four-armed Kali, wearing a garland of decapitated male heads, striding over her naked husband, the god Shiva.

A number of contemporary art works by female artists will be on display, curators said, highlighting Tantra’s continuing gender relevance. For example, a canvas by Sutapa Biswas from 1985 on loan from Bradford Museums and Galleries – the self-explanatory Housewives with Steak-Knives.

The final section of the show will focus on the 20th century and how, in the 1960s and 1970s, Tantra was interpreted as a movement that could inspire anti-capitalist and free love ideals.

The British Museum has one of the biggest collections of Tantric material in the world so is well-placed to stage such a big exhibition, its director, Hartwig Fischer, said.

Tantra had “quite simply changed the world,” said Fischer. “Yet it is little-known, or greatly misunderstood, in the west and this exhibition looks to remedy that.”

It also has a continuing relevance. “Gender, female power, gender fluidity, religious pluralism, mindfulness, wellbeing … these are all topics that are very much part of the contemporary discourse.”

• Tantra: Enlightenment to Revolution will be at the British Museum, London, 23 April-26 July


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The art of tantra: is there more to it than marathon sex and massages?
The west reduced tantra to a quest for sexual liberation and wellness. But a new show charts its darker depths – from avenging goddesses to blood-drinking and self-decapitation

Ammar Kalia

21, Sep, 2020 @5:00 AM

Article image
British Museum staff express support for trustee who resigned
Novelist Ahdaf Soueif quit role over BP sponsorship and artefacts repatriation

Lanre Bakare Arts and culture correspondent

23, Jul, 2019 @10:50 AM

Article image
Tantra at the British Museum review – acrobatic lovers and human skulls
Embraced by the 60s counterculture including the Rolling Stones, the ancient spiritual philosophy of Tantra finds enlightenment not just in sex but death

Jonathan Jones

21, Sep, 2020 @11:01 PM

Article image
British Museum to return Buddhist heads looted in Afghan war
Stolen artefacts likely removed by Taliban will go on display before being sent to Kabul

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

08, Jul, 2019 @2:46 PM

Article image
A one-way passage from India: Hackney Museum explores fate of colonial ayahs
Indian women were often employed to care for British children, but some were abandoned on reaching London

Esther Addley

01, Mar, 2020 @5:57 PM

Article image
British Museum 'has head in sand' over return of artefacts
Authors of major report accuse institution of hiding from issue of looted colonial-era objects

Lanre Bakare

21, Jun, 2019 @9:45 AM

Article image
Amaravati Buddhist art to finally be seen in full glory at British Museum
After a two-year declutter and revamp, the Sir Joseph Hotung gallery will allow visitors to view Asian antiquities up close

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

12, Dec, 2017 @5:00 PM

Article image
British Museum first to showcase interactive display with wifi link
Smartphone technology used to bring to life story of woman who donated carving to Indian Buddhist shrine 2,000 years ago

Maev Kennedy

08, Aug, 2017 @4:10 PM

Article image
Manchester museum returns stolen sacred artefacts to Indigenous Australians
Handover boosts aim to release 32,000 ceremonial items from British institutions

Josh Halliday North of England correspondent

20, Nov, 2019 @6:55 PM

Article image
British Museum chief: taking the Parthenon marbles was 'creative'
Museum director sparks anger by saying removing sculptures from Greece was ‘a creative act’

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

28, Jan, 2019 @7:45 PM