RADIO / The joy of self-control: Robert Hanks on the sensual Indian religion of tantra, Freudian drama from Poland and the triumph of medical science

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The Independent Culture
A few weeks ago, Mark Tully apparently came in for some stick from squeamish listeners over the detail and enthusiasm of his commentary on the sacrifice of a goat. He's clearly not too proud to learn from his mistakes: in Tantra (Radio 4, Thursday) his description of goat sacrifice was a model of dignity and restraint.

In fact, the whole programme did well in this department. Tantra is a religion that denies taboos, defies fear and celebrates sensuality. In India it has dark associations with black magic and orgies; in the West, its reputation is more nudge-nudge (enlightenment through sex, eh? Can't be bad). But as he travelled around the temples of north-west India, questioning scholars and yogis, Tully showed respect for tantra as a serious philosophy. He also managed to ask all the necessary, faintly prurient questions without sounding prurient. That wasn't always easy - tantric scriptures contain some fairly explicit stuff, although believers say it only reads that way if you take it out of context.

The central fact about tantra is that it is based on the belief that the universe is composed of two principles, the male and the female (so that sex becomes a fusion of the dualities). The central myth is that it can improve your sex life. Tantric sex, for the purposes of meditation and worship, requires enormous self-control and can only be practised by two very enlightened people; it does not involve the pursuit of pleasure. Having said that, one yogi did admit that with somebody particularly attractive you could easily lose your concentration.

The best part of the programme was Tully's postscript, in which he contrasted tantra's optimistic attitude to sex, sin and death with the more fearful approach of Christianity. He felt that Christianity had in some ways failed him or, more modestly, that he had somehow failed Christianity.

Delivered with complete frankness, this was a rather touching personal testament. Too often, you can feel that a presenter is imposing his personality the material; here, following Tully's self-effacing commentary, it felt more like being allowed into somewhere quite private. Tully spoke of the courage and determination that tantra demands: but so, to be fair, does really informative and scrupulous reporting.

The darker side of sex dominated Tadeusz Rozewicz's 1975 play Mariage Blanc (Radio 3, Sunday), the final drama in the Polska] season. Bianca is an adolescent girl at the turn of the century, living in a rigidly ordered household and starting to notice sex lurking in dark corners. As she approaches her marriage to the innocent Benjamin she feels, as the synopsis puts it, 'threatened by male sexuality'. This means the listener is subjected to large gobs of undigested Freudianism: roses, chalices, pomegranates, dreams of dromedaries with menacingly swollen humps, of killing a bull which turns out to have her father's face. Staring at Benjamin's trousers she suffers tumescent visions ('You would scream too if you saw his colossal member swell and stiffen like a horse's erect . . . aaah]'); she fantasises about being molested by St Nicholas, a giant wearing nothing but a red cloak, or meeting a sinister huntsman in a black cloak.

It's hard to tell how far this Angela Carterish atmosphere is deliberately ironic; at any rate, it teeters a lot of the time on the edge of absurdity. In Kate Rowland's production, it was rescued and even, at odd moments, converted into poetry by the seriousness of Jane Hazelgrove's acting and Dominique Legendre's music.

But a moving feature the same evening, Taking the Medicine (Radio 4), put Mariage Blanc in a different light. The play's title refers to Bianca's marriage to Benjamin: blanc because she insists on consummation only when she is ready. Eventually, she presents herself to him in men's clothes and declares herself to be his brother (weird]). The frenetic symbolism puts sexual repression at the centre of Bianca's neurosis; and though other factors are mentioned - the death of a younger brother; being treated as a boy by her father - they seem to be secondary, contributing matters.

In Taking the Medicine, middle- aged interviewees remembered childhood experiences of TV, diphtheria and polio, emphasising that right up to the 1950s, the death of children was an everyday occurrence. Then vaccines changed all that.

There's a tendency in art and literature to treat the discovery of sex and the unconscious as the central fact of the early 20th century; Taking the Medicine reminded you that it was really only a central fact of art and literature. In the real world, there have been other, bigger revolutions; and they're just as interesting.