Anonymous Shiva Linga Paintings, a free exhibition of 35 Tantric images by anonymous painters in India is on display through Dec. 22 at the Arcadia University Art Gallery. Each of the works depicts the “Shiva linga” on a page-size sheet of salvaged paper.
The Sanskrit word lingam, originally meaning “mark” or “sign,” often refers to the phallus or symbol of male creative energy that is complementary to the yoni, which means both “source” and “female.” The term “Shiva lingam,” however, describes one of the forms of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and transformation (and one of the trinity of deities that also includes Brahma and Vishnu) in his unborn and invisible state.
Unlike sculptural “Shiva linga,” which are commonly phallic in shape, the linga in these paintings are ovoid and accrue some of the symbolic associations of the “egg-shaped cosmos,” a concept that can be traced back to ancient Sanskrit scriptures such as the Brahmanda Purana.
Made to awaken heightened consciousness, the images are intended to cancel distraction and be readily remembered. According to French poet Frank André Jamme, who has played an instrumental role in introducing these paintings to western audiences, showing the paintings as part of Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the Earth) exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in 1989, the tantrikas who create them work in a focused state of mental rapture. Jamme likens their activity to that of musicians performing the ragas of classical Indian music, repeating and subtly reinterpreting melodic structures.
The “Shiva linga” is only one of many designs within the vocabulary of Tantra, an esoteric and complex branch of Hinduism. When the works are seen in succession, the repetition of the lozenge-shape form, centered on diversely stained and tinted supports, elicit an acute form of attention that renders nuanced distinctions between each example significant. Despite their expression of an unbroken, centuries-old tradition, the works that comprise this exhibition (made between 1970 and 2000) convey a surprising freshness and immediacy. Possessing an uncanny affinity with examples of 20th-century abstract art, they are coveted both in India and in the West. Feature Inc. began exhibiting these paintings in 1998 and has continued to support their presentation internationally, most recently at the current Venice Biennale.
As part of an effort to place the paintings in cultural and religious context, Arcadia’s Art Gallery has invited scholar and author Frederick Smith to lecture about them on Tuesday, Dec. 3, at 6:30 p.m. Smith is the Stewart Fellow in the Princeton Humanities Center and a visiting professor in South Asian Studies at Princeton University, and a professor of Sanskrit and Classical Indian Religions at the University of Iowa. He has published extensively on a range of topics, including the modern performance of Vedic sacrificial rituals and translations of the early 16th-century devotional poet and philosopher Vallabhacharya.
The Gallery is open Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday, noon – 4 p.m.; as well as by appointment. The Gallery will be closed for the Thanksgiving holiday from Wednesday, Nov. 27, through Monday, Dec. 2.