by Imma Ramos. Thames & Hudson, September 2020. 288 p. ill. ISBN 9780500480625 (h/c), $50.00.
Reviewed March 2021
Kevin Talmer Whiteneir Jr., Reference Librarian, Ryerson and Burnham Library and Archives, email@example.com
Tantra: Enlightenment to Revolution provides a captivating look into the ritual and practices of Tantra, a subversive spiritual movement within South Asian culture that came to prominence after the sixth century CE. Analyzing rich visual, textual, and ceremonial artifacts, Imma Ramos, curator of the South Asian collection at The British Museum, offers a well-researched account of Tantric rituals and ideologies and successfully weaves together a rich tapestry revealing a woefully underexplored, underrepresented, and misrepresented cultural phenomenon. Tantra traces the growth of Tantra in medieval India and its spread across the South Asian continent, punctuating its social, geo-cultural, and chronological manifestations and transformations with material culture derived from The British Museum’s extensive collection.
Ramos contemporizes her treatment with a critical focus that centers cultural transgressions as paths to enlightenment, the proto-feminist worship and veneration of women and femininity within the Tantric system, and an unflinching willingness to identify the histories of white colonialism tied to both the denigration of Tantra in the West and the visual and collecting practices of museums that collected Tantra materials in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By its conclusion, no dimension is left untreated as Ramos folds literature, political, and religious manifestations of Tantra into her well-illustrated account of the practice.
Tantra is a brilliant resource for the general historian as well as specialists focused on South Asian history, comparative religious, cultural and religious studies, and artists, art historians, and museum professionals. Its analyses are clearly articulated and demonstrate an awareness to prose that is both educational and engaging. Throughout, Ramos relies on historical quotes, religious passages, and historical accounts to inform and bolster her claims on the roles Tantra played throughout history. Tantra includes an impressive catalogue of high-quality color illustrations that maintains an engrossing balance between historically grounded text and demonstrative visual evidence. Ramos employs an arresting, well-designed and legible style palette, utilizing rich blacks, reds, and golds – colors that parallel the Kali figure depicted on the book’s cover and cleverly replicate the significance of visual material in Tantric ritual.
Its indices, bibliography, glossary, and scholarly resources are not only substantive but varied, including a helpful guide to Tantric vocabulary and a reading list of primary and secondary resources expected of a publication from Thames & Hudson and The British Museum. Tantra would make an excellent addition to the university and museum library, the introductory and advanced college syllabus, honors and AP high school art, history, and art history courses, and the personal collection of independent researchers and historians.