P. T. Reddy, Neo-Tantrism, and Modern Art in India

Article excerpt

The July 1969 moon landing represents a canonical moment for modernity. For the United States, it meant a battle victory in the space race and a triumph of American science and ingenuity. ET. Reddy (1915-1996), an artist then living in Hyderabad, India, saw these aspects of the moon landing, certainly, but he also acknowledged the cosmic importance of that moment, using it as a springboard for a series of etchings and oil paintings on the theme of humans on the moon. Reddy's series reclaims the moon landing for the world rather than solely for Americans-fulfilling Neil Armstrong's "for mankind"-and recenters the iconography of the moon landing away from the iconic figure planting the flag in the lunar soil (although he does use that as well) toward a more symbolic, universalizing representation of the unions of microcosm and macrocosm, humanity and god, the human body and the celestial body. Reddy images this modern moment through the symbols and concepts of Tantra, an element of both Hinduism and Buddhism focused on a cosmology of union, made popular in the 19603 and 19705. He thus takes the central concepts of modernity-scientific progress and inquiry, humanity's control of nature, the search for universality through abstraction-and articulates them through his personal interpretation of the South Asian visual culture of Tantra.

This article argues that Reddy's use of Tantra allows him to transcend the paradox inherent in articulating "modern Indian art."1 If modern art develops in part as an avant-garde reaction to a "norm," then those so outside the norm as to be ignored by it cannot participate in the modern. Furthermore, if modern art relies on the appropriation of the aesthetics of the (usually colonized) Other, then how can artists in colonized or formerly colonized contexts make the same move? If one is already the Other, to whom does one look for modernist inspiration and self-articulation? Reddy must work within these paradoxes, and working through a neo-Tantric idiom, he creates a space for both an international and a local articulation of the modern. Thus, Reddy treads the problematic knifeedge of the modern, teetering between looking to a strand of visual culture from South Asia (Tantric art) and creating an abstracted, personal symbolic vision-a vision that attempts to speak to the nation. As an artist, Reddy can be considered neo-Tantric, in that Tantric imagery offers him a venue for this sort of bridging.2 He does not escape the problematic position of mimicking the moves of Western modernity; he remains within the historicity of modern art history, looking to the "primitive" in Tantra in order to build the modern and creating a new language of abstraction and symbolism in order to participate in a nation-centered and global-looking modernity.

In Reddy's work, we see connections to a wide range of other neo-Tantric artists, including G. R. Santosh (1929-1997), S. H. Raza (b. 1922), and Biren De (b. 1926), and thus he serves as a good entry point and guide to the works under this broad rubric. For example, his moon landing series, as I will elaborate later, relies on an understanding of a geometric symmetry and pattern derived from Tantric yontra diagrams, but deviates significantly from that source to develop a new idiom of symbolic representation. Other works explore the concept of unity through imagery related to mantras or cosmic vibrations and sounds, also central to Tantra. Reddy also engages in dialogue with contemporary life and politics, as the moon landing series shows, along with his Nehru series and other works touching on poverty, labor movements, and the social changes wrought by India's Independence in 1947. Because of his use of the neo-Tantric idiom, however, his explorations of historical concerns such as these become dehistoricized and abstracted, as I discuss below. Thus, through Reddy's work, I argue that for artists struggling with being both modern and Indian in the 1960s and 1970s, neo-Tantric imagery provided one solution, indicating a path through the abstraction/representation bind and retaining both a universality of form and a specificity of national identity. …