ABOUT SEEMA KOHLI
"All The World’s A Stage, and all the men
and women merely players."
As You Like It, Act-II, Scene-VII
by Dr. Sona Datta
Writer, Curator and Broadcaster on South Asian art.
Seema Kohli is very much more than a painter of pictures. Her entire practice is a kind of bedrock of perpetual learning. Fundamentally, Kohli’s expansive canvases are populated by the dynamism of all that is living. There is a particular draw to theatricality, to persona that have carried power. By dressing up and taking on their identity, Kohli seems to attempt to re-animate these powerful historic narratives.
Kohli’s work is unequivocally Indian. As a ‘western’ viewer, this may hinder our appreciation of its larger project, which is a culturally specific response to universal human themes. Kohli just happens to draw upon the vast historical, religious and spiritual tapestry that makes up old and new India, because that is where she comes from and that is the land that has shaped her.
Teeming with life, Seema Kohli’s canvases remind me of the busy experience of India at street level – of everyday life’s noise, dust, heat, smell, sweat, voices and music that make up the constant churn of life, work, play and desire. Life is here in its endless forms and restless desires.
Kohli’s work is of the soil that birthed four of the world’s great religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism yet also finds space for South Asia’s unique efflorescence of Islam in the shrines of India’s Sufi saints such as Nizamuddin in Old Delhi. Kohli’s canvases, like the mellifluous sounds of ancient ghazhals that have been sung for centuries, leave an indelible impression on the heart.
Today the artist lives and works in New Delhi, a teeming modern metropolis of 17 million people but also a city built on ancient citadels. She is drawn to places of religious significance – sites which have had multiple accretions of ritual and psychological attention lavished upon them. She seems to connect through her being and ultimately though her work with the concentrated energies of such places. Perhaps in an effort to fully engage with her enquiry she even inserts herself as protagonist within her expansive landscapes.
Hand painted archival print, 24 x 36 inches, Collection of the Artist
I have never met Seema Kohli but she feels close, her creative vision even closer. She is an artist whose creative purpose has a singular clarity, drive and momentum that finds resolution in her visual oeuvre.
For Kohli, the process of mark-making is about the extension from a dot to a line to a shape to a seething multitude of forms that mirror our fleeting daily perceptions. Seema Kohli is brimming with excitement as she explains: ‘My line is driven by instinct – it’s about how the hand instinctively takes the line forward.’
Visual, as opposed to verbal, expression rescued Kohli at a time when language was still unfathomable as a means of communication. Modern medicine might have described the three year old Kohli as a child with ‘delayed speech’. Delayed or stayed, the child gravitated instinctively towards a pictographic world of mark-making choosing this over sound or words as a mode of communication. The artist narrates her early biography with a clarity that allowed her to then to pursue a life in images.
Today, the mature Kohli has learned to harness language to help us navigate her richly painted, often dense, canvases be that through poetry, song, public speaking or simply through conversation. To me the artist is on a perpetual journey driven by the desire to give form to the endless magic of the universe and in so doing she invites us towards a deeper vision of the soul.
KALI-Vishvaroopa, 96x60 inches, Acrylic colours and ink on canvas with 24ct gold and silver leaf, 2009
In Seema Kohli’s world, material reality is animated through its interplay with the dynamic, reproductive principle known as shakti, a universal feminine force (not to be confused with a moment in twentieth century history known as feminism). Her work is not even about women. The feminine is given form and becomes present by virtue of the artist as protagonist. That said, multitudes of generic female forms populate Kohli’s world. Generic because they could be anybody and nobody. These forms have a totemic quality and seem to me to reiterate shakti or the feminine force. Kohli’s invitation is to connect with that inner force, which is present in us all.
Kohli’s faceless yet powerful female figures challenge traditional models of womanhood as passive or docile. Here the Hindu Goddess Kali simultaneously encapsulates both maternal and destructive power. The garland of severed heads around her waist represents the human ego in all its fragility, which the goddess helps her devotees to transcend.
There is an erotic union between the dynamic feminine principle or shakti as a creative force and the male principle, Shiva, as pure consciousness. Without Shakti, Shiva remains inert – and it is this declaration and celebration of the powerful feminine force within us all that populates Kohli’s universe. One of my favourite works by the artist is the playful Khel 2013 which hovers between the realms of sculpture and painting. Columns made up of Kohli’s female protagonists in various stances: in the fierce stance of godly warfare, kneeling in prayer, or arms outstretched in joyous abandon. Each column is repeated horizontally across the picture space. Emerging from them are multitudes of protruding tongues variously coloured from scarlet red to shocking pink. This image has both a playful pop art quality while drawing on familiar cultural resonance within the Indic tradition. Most famously, of course, the Hindu goddess Kali, is often depicted at the moment she sticks her tongue out to show that she is overcome by shame as her fury has unknowingly caused her to step on her recumbent body of her husband, Shiva. In an attempt to control his wife’s rage, Shiva lies down in front of her, blocking her way. The realisation that she has touched her husband’s body with her feet unleashes a shame that eventually also arrests her rampage.
Khel, 60 x 96 inches, Plywood, fibre, acrylic colours, 2013
Space, 22x33 inches, Time and Energy, Pen and Ink on Arches paper, 2013
Kohli’s practice is broad and catholic: drawing on the diverse traditions that criss-cross the subcontinent of India. Her iconographies, philosophy and religious understanding are all drawn from the complex tapestry that make up old and new India. Tradition and modernity, the quotidian and the universal, are all comfortable companions in Kohli’s work. This pen and ink drawing entitled Come Play With Me plays with Western antiquity. Roman numerals make up a clock face, a series of legs (without bodies) follow each other and in the centre a large egg-timer shows the unending passage of time.
Born into a educated and forward-thinking Hindu family was a solid foundation for the aspiring artist. Hinduism is often described more as a way of life, a set of propositions for being in the world while undertaking a personal journey of self-realisation. The ultimate tenet is to ‘know yourself’. Being untethered from any central text or absolute ‘word of god’ affords its devotees to look not for an ultimate reward in heaven but rather to celebrate the process of living and become the path itself. This perhaps allows its adherents to make sense of the simultaneous profundity and banality of existence. Seema Kohli’s richly painted vistas take us on a journey. They are not a mirror but a door to greater spiritual depth.
Kohli’s melodic world is typically reproduced on larger than life-size canvases that, literally, engulf us. This is not the voice of the navel-gazing mendicant on a mission towards nirvana but a universal song calling to all souls in search of a deeper sense of themselves – extending a hand that helps us harness the sensual stuff of life: of the busy, pungent, visceral and tactile mother earth and in so doing to locate and unleash powers hitherto unknown. The ultimate energy of the universe – felt originally as a vibration or Om- is the intangible presence that Seema Kohli tries to capture, to express and to honour in her myriad painted canvases.
Hiranyagarbha, 72x56 inches, Pen and ink and Watercolour
on Arches Paper, 2003
Kohli is a master linesman. That Kohli began her training as a print maker is evident in the preponderance of line in her work and the powerful body of early works that are more or less monochromatic. Colour came much later. For me, colour in Kohli’s work resides at the surface. Her works remain fundamentally linear. In many ways this formal technique has a parity with the artist’s understanding representation of the phenomenal world as fleeting, of the surface.
The unorthodox -and often misunderstood Indian tradition of Tantra has been described as a ‘system of observances’ about ‘the vision of man and the cosmos where correspondences between the inner world of the person and the macrocosmic reality play an essential role ’ Tantra’s experimentation with the mundane to reach the supramundane make it and Seema Kohli seem inextricably linked. The artist ponders as she considers my question and answers carefully, ‘I cannot rule that out as I am working with the idea of expansion, extension and the feminine. As we know the philosophy of Tantra rests on shakti and my whole practice also rests on the feminine principle.’
Both share this idea of constant collaboration. In Tantra everything has a form, it is constantly rejuvenating. I am reminded here of Kohli’s series The Golden Womb. Tantra is a philosophy of Shakti and Shakti, which like Kohli, is liberal, experimental, undogmatic, and where everything is acceptable and nothing need be negated. Kohli continues “Devotees of Tantra encourage defiance, and they champion personal (as opposed to institutional) rituals. Tantra harnesses the physical being as well as the mind, the body, the soul and, of course, the super consciousness. All are involved, working together towards the greater idea of self-realisation”. Kohli’s process is perhaps not unlike that of a classical Indian musician engaging with a traditional raga: a core form upon which she allows her creative urge to improvise.
Come play with me,13x20.5 inches, Etching on paper, 2014
COME PLAY WITH ME
to the rhythm and the dance of the flapping wings
to the swing and the sway of the viridian leaves
in the unleashed laughter of the roaring thunder
in the quietness of the soft drizzle
i sense You
taking me closer to
Am I a myth or reality?
Today’s reality is tomorrow’s myth…
Tomorrow’s myth is yesterday’s reality…
I weave a web of illusion,
I entice, create desires…
Am I terrible,
a destroyer, a slayer?
Of all that entangles into my web.
Licking the root of their desires,
Bestowing freedom to all who dare to play with me
I am Maya
The fire within is without
I am the creator and the destroyed
Unending Dance of Light - Mahavira,120x48 inches, Etching on paper, 2014
Seema Kohli’s work is fundamentally about Energy, a phenomenon that cannot be created or destroyed but only transformed from one form into another: “My canvases are populated by female forms but my work is not about women. It is about the female principle in all of us. The idea of energy is very fluid and actually cannot be contained with any single form. I try to contain energy within various iconographic or mythological forms. In this way, the vastness of the energy in the universe can be momentarily contained”.
Finally, I ask, "In India, you are falling over history at every street corner. Why do you visit so many historical sites?" Seema Kohli is repeatedly drawn towards the hundreds, even thousands, of ancient sites of religious significance that criss-cross the sub-continent of India. These are places made potent from the centuries of ritual and psychological attention that have been focussed upon them. Out of this concentrated effort comes Kohli’s perpetual journey of learning: a passionate and committed study of her subject and, ultimately, of herself.
Kohli’s work has often been described as ‘not contemporary enough’ as if there were some international measure of modernity. This notion may in part come from the neo-colonial reduction of India to an ‘exotic other’, a ‘mystical east’. Perhaps it’s Kohli’s confident and unabashed turn towards her heritage to unearth its actual truth (and not one foisted upon it by the Western gaze), that has made her work unpopular in some quarters. But Kohli is not concerned with what’s in vogue and this is what gives her work its depth. Her enquiry is altogether deeper and, as such, may outlast all of her detractors. What Kohli does so beautifully, profoundly and with integrity is seek to understand the culture of the land that birthed her.
I AM THE TREE
Masculine and feminine. Two flip sides of a coin.
Not one without the other.
Molten lava and cooling waters.
Hard earth and sheltering sky.
Seasons of change and bountiful nature.
Rising from the deepest earth, coursing with the sap of life, flowering to the touch of tenderness.
From ancient times, ancient lands and ancient tales, through time captive in its branches.
A universe in itself, a world.
As is nature, so are men and women.
I eye this world, I pay it homage, I paint its story.
I am the tree.
I hold the universe in the spread of my arms.
Excerpt from “I Am” 2012 Tedex Talk by Seema Kohli.
'The Art of Seema Kohli'
by Dr. Cleo Roberts
Writer on contemporary South and South East Asian art.
Seema Kohli is resolute in the way she sees the world. At a time of increasingly publicized cases of injustices against women in India, Kohli depicts female force. In her colossal drawings, the clarity of her line attests to her clear vision: the feminine engulfs everything and is the ultimate source of power and existence.
An intricate work like The Golden Womb, is a sensuous display of female strength.
A range of women or yoginis are caught up in a fantastical world where the seas and skies conflate. Found amongst trails of flowers and flocks of birds, their bodies are loosely connected by thick plaits of hair. Amid the rich and painstakingly decorated surface, these women have no facial detail. Their blank visage, typical of Kohli’s work, asks for the viewer’s imagination. These are figures waiting to be defined. For as Kohli says, ‘I’m a mirror. When I paint, you see not what I have made but what you want to see”.
The Golden Womb, 35x60 inches, Acrylic and ink on canvas with 24ct
gold leaf and silver, 2020
Kohli sees herself as a conduit. Her works intended to speaks to universal concerns. She appeals to shared narrative structures and, in a sense, Joseph Campbell’s idea of the monomyth: that there is a worldwide common template for heroic stories. Although Kohli’s work may evoke Shakti and a serigraph like Narsimhi shares the image of a Hindu goddess, she wills the spiritual and wants to transcend religious interpretation. And so, her art does not operate in a traditional system of darshan (auspicious viewing and being seen by a deity) but allows access to a spiritual experience, unrestricted by doctrine. Unmooring her images from Hindu faith and yet at once drawing on its tenets, Kohli offers up a vision of energy that strives to have universal resonance.
Narshimi 1st, 10x10 inches, Serigraph, 2015,