Laura Gascoigne unpicks the mysteries of Tantra, now the focus of a new show at the British Museum, and finds a philosophy to live by
“‘What an awful picture!’ we exclaim as we look at the ferocious figure of Kali. Yet she is honoured and worshipped by intelligent Hindus, and little children are taught to pray to her. Look at her! … Her hands and face are stained with blood and her red tongue hangs out asking for blood, more blood! … Yet this savage female deity is called the gentle mother! … I am glad I wasn’t born a Hindu and made to believe in Siva and Kali, aren’t you?”
The patronising tone of this caption to a picture of the Hindu goddess illustrated in a Bible Churchmen’s Missionary Society tract of 1921 locates it, thankfully, in another era. But I have to be honest: passing image after image of a bloodthirsty Kali in the British Museum’s exhibition, “Tantra: enlightenment to revolution” (until 24 January 2021), I was tempted to agree.
The illustration of Struwwelpeter’s Scissorman that had to be hidden in the garage from my thumb-sucking sister was mild stuff compared with the sculpture of Kali in this exhibition wearing bloodied corpses hanging from her ears and a garland of decapitated heads around her neck – a late nineteenth-century example of the sort of popular clay figure made for the annual Kali Puja festivals in Bengal. The image is all the more terrifying for being female, a point brought home by curator Dr Imma Ramos’ presentation of this ancient belief system as proto-feminist.