Seema Kohli: From the canvas of her life and artby Aparajita Krishna August 7 2020, 5:39 am Estimated Reading Time: 21 mins, 37 secs
Aparajita Krishna deep dives to Seema Kohli’s work and brings to you her thoughts, which influence her art.
“If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint”, is a quote from Edward Hopper, acknowledged as the most important realist painter and printmaker of twentieth-century America.
I am nonetheless attempting to word-paint Seema Kohli, one of the most recognized contemporary Indian painters. Delhi born and based Seema Kohli, is a Lalit Kala Akademi Award recipient and has received many other national and international honors and felicitations.
She expresses her creativity through various mediums; painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, mural, installation, ceramic and performance. She is also a teacher-lecturer and motivational speaker. Seema is quoted saying, “I am a mirror. When I paint, what you see is not what I have created, but what you want to see. I am both myth and reality. Pick the one you want but remember that the mirror distorts and so the myth might be reality and the reality might be myth.”
Pablo Picasso is said to have said, "Painting is a blind man's profession. He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen." Vincent Van Gogh is said to have said, “I dream my painting and then I paint my dream.”
The multi-disciplinary artist Seema Kohli, defines herself at 60 as a poet and a dreamer; thriving on imagination, ideas, philosophies, narratives, myths and creating these as images or words. She and her art have travelled across India and the world, partaking in some of the most prestigious exhibitions, events and interactions.
Seema Kohli says, “I have been showing internationally since the year 2000. Since then almost every year, I have been exhibiting in two to three countries. It is extremely enriching to travel with work, get feedback and also in the process learn about people, cultures and traditions. My works have been shown at Art Basel 2008, at Arco 2009, at Venice Biennale of Art and Architecture 2013-2014, at Kochi Biennale 2015 and at India Art Fair 2010 to 2019 among many others. I have also been invited to give talks, lectures and performances by TEDx, Royal Opera House (Mumbai), WIN Conference, NGMA (National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru) and various universities in India and all over the world including University of Connecticut (UConn), California State University (Chico), Harvard University and Davis. My body of artworks are in collection with various museums and at places in India and abroad. To name a few: Supreme Court of India, DRDO India, T3 International Airport Delhi and Mumbai, Lalit Kala Akademi (LKA) Delhi, Kerala Museum of Arts, Ford Foundation, Rubin Museum of Art - New York, USA – and Museum of Sacred Arts (MOSA) in Belgium.”
Seema’s last exhibition in India was, A Circle Of Our Own in 2019 at Sunder Nursery, a 16th century heritage park complex adjacent to the Humayun’s Tomb -a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Delhi. Her last few exhibitions-performances abroad were: In Silence the Secrets Speak in 2018 at Davis University (USA), Project Home at Yuba City (North California, USA) and Celestial Revelations at Museum of Sacred Arts, Durbuy, Belgium in 2019.
Seema Kohli’s exhibitions and shows have been inaugurated and graced by reputed personalities. Satish Gujral, Lalita Lajmi, Shabana Azmi, Javed Akhtar, Hema Malini, Sridevi, Sushmita Sen are some of the noted Indians in this count. Her paintings including custom made ones have also been commissioned by hotels.
She has been conferred with awards and citations. Among the chosen ones are; Female Empowerment, outstanding achievement award, by Molecule Communication, Mumbai (2014), Lifetime Achievement Award by Stree Shakti, India (2011), Young FICCI Ladies Organization Women Achievers Awards (2010), Gold Medal Florence Biennale - for 2-channel video installation, Swayamsiddha (2009), Marg Drishti Award, South Delhi Polytechnic for Women, New Delhi (2008) and Lalit Kala Akademi National Awards for Women (2007).
I have visited her exhibition, her stage performance and have been hosted at her beautiful studio-home in Delhi. I have seen her hands paint many interwoven stories with the finest of fine intricacies and have been astounded by the force of her work. To face and observe them on her home-turf added to my experience of Seema the artist and the person. The studio-home is beautified with colours, palette, clay, brushes, oil paints, canvases, books spread around. I adore one of the pictures shared herein that has captured Seema perched on top of the table sitting on her canvas and painting.
Her paintings are thematically rooted in philosophy, mythology and literature. There is the touch of the parable and the real. This juxtaposition of the real and the imagined blends so beautifully that for someone like me there is no telling the real from the imagined. Her vibrant coloured artistry is primarily a celebration of the female form and energy. She is particularly known for using golden (24 carat gold) and silver illuminated motifs on her canvases.
As for the spiritual layering in her paintings and in her multi-art, to quote her, “I see spirituality as transcendent of religion. I am very open to other faiths and philosophies.”
The stamp of her individuality shines through her works. One of her installations is Cutting Chai, which was installed at Nehru Park in Delhi. It is a collection of tea-pots, glasses of tea hung on a tree. To her, Art is all pervading for it is derived from life and connected with living itself. So she rightly answers in her question, “Who decides what is art?”
One of her paintings tells the story of her favourite chair in her studio with herself on it. It has in her words, “Moved from the worlds I inhabit to the worlds of my paintings. I enjoy reading my books here with my feet curled up.”
Seema Kohli shares with me some recalls and thoughts from the canvas of her life and work. We also talk of her art and our world in the present.
What is your first memory of/in life?
I can write a whole lot about growing up in My Dilli. Delhi of my childhood was all about trees. It was the banyans, peepals, neem, gulmohars, not to forget jamuns, amrood and shahatoots which made up the entire city. Now I have to go to Khan Market searching for jamuns and shatoot! In fact, each house had the outer verandah and the backyards, which were brimming with various fruit trees including lemon and mango trees.
I still remember climbing on to guava trees and soaking in the rain as a child. The lanes and streets were and are still lined with raat ki rani, gulmohar, harshringhar and neem trees. Some of the banyan trees are still left in the interiors of our colony. Houses (back then) had less space inside and more outside. Trees took precedence over people.
You are quoted saying, “I was introduced to the world of colour and paper as a form of therapy as a 3 year old because I was extremely introverted. Whatever was happening in my mind, all of my questions and my answers to those questions, became embedded in my scenes on paper and canvas.” Do expand on this. What were your first few paintings like?
As a child I was absolutely introverted and did not find any need to communicate with others. It was not that I could not speak but I chose not to speak. That gave me a lot of time with myself and probably it gave me time to explore what I see. As a three year old, I sat on the floor painting on innumerable magic colouring books, then on A4 size papers, then newspapers cut into quarters, then on the walls, finally on my clothes and then on myself.
I am pretty much doing the same thing after 57 years of my life. Of course as a 3 year old I did not paint any masterpieces. For me it was the magic of the dot expanding into a line to an unknown form, which fascinated me. And it still fascinates me. I drew trees, birds and faces most of the time, which necessarily did not look like the ones we are familiar with. That was the point of conversation between me and my family, relatives and friends. It gave me my identity.
Who are the painters, artists who have been influencers on your work? Historically speaking and among the contemporary.
Aparajita, consciously I have not been influenced by any one artist as such. For me it’s a very individual internal journey. I was influenced by Pollock (Jackson Pollock-1912-1956, American painter, major figure in the abstract expressionist movement) and still do his color splashes as base while preparing my canvases or paper works. It does give a very rich base to my artwork. I have been moved by many artists’ lives though. Modigliani (Amedeo Modigliani, Italian Jewish painter and sculptor), Vincent Van Gogh (Dutch post-impressionist painter and among the most influential figures in the history of Western art), Somnath Hore (Bengali sculptor and printmaker), M. F. Husain (one of the most celebrated and internationally recognized Indian painters of the 20th century), Satish Gujral (very noted Indian painter, sculptor, muralist) - they all have had a life of struggle which shaped their art. I do try to look into the lives of the artists; their struggles. It is important as that is what actually shaped their art. Somnath Hore, Hussain, Nandalal Bose (one of the pioneers of modern Indian art), Mrinalini Mukherjee (sculptor), Rameshwar Broota (known for his paintings of male bodies, both muscular and emaciated); are the masters who I really admire. Our traditional temples and scriptures in relation to the feminine have had a great influence on my work. And last but not the least the stories of my grandfather, father and the spiritual atmosphere of my family all contributed to my work.
You are a brilliant artist working across different mediums. Your expressions span across paintings, murals, sculpture, installations, ceramics, prints as well as performances. Each is a unique medium. How do you in your work distinguish between each; and how do you synergise them together?
It is not difficult to synergise different mediums once you know your content. You need to be sure about what you want to say. Drawing, painting, installations, sculpting or performance - all are a way of communication. This is a tool. I am thorough with my content. As and when an image demands I reason it out with the image and then move on to the transmutation of the image into another medium. Just like how we would change different bodies and forms and the soul remains the same.
Your works engage with a wide circuit of references from religious iconography, world mythology, philosophy and literature. Your multidisciplinary talent has a spiritual touch and inquiry not in a mumbo-jumbo fashion, but as a thrust to your creative exploration. Shakti, the divine cosmic energy manifesting through female embodiment, has been extensively explored in your work. One of your paintings is Rakse Shamz, based on Shamz-i-Tabrezi’s (Persian poet, spiritual instructor) philosophy. He was Rumi’s master, his spiritual instructor. In my understanding you have a belief system that is feminist, progressive, secular and liberal. Right?
You are absolutely correct, Aparajita. A lot of reading and research has gone into my work which has been sahaj and not forced. I was naturally inclined towards world mythology, spirituality and towards understanding the roots of faith and fear. As the atmosphere at home was congenial to spirituality, so grasping was easier. As I grew I was naturally drawn to the feminine energy in the form of Shakti – Kali? There was a natural amalgamation of yin and yang. For some reason the feminine was negated. This is troublesome.
We find the total disbalance not only in the sociological space but also environmental and seeping into almost all aspects of existence. Though I was already conversant with various eastern faiths and philosophies, I wanted to understand this more extensively. I was not very conversant with western philosophies. So in order to make my concepts stronger I did my philosophy honours from Miranda House in Delhi.
I studied Rene Descartes (French philosopher, mathematician), George Berkeley (Irish philosopher), Carl Gustav Jung (Swiss psychiatrist, psychoanalyst), David Hume (Scottish philosopher, historian) and Plato (Athenian philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece), Socrates (ancient Greek philosopher, who is credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy) too. I found there may be superficial differences between various philosophies and faith but at the lower subliminal level they all reflect similar thoughts. I am still very interested in scriptural studies and also in having as much practical knowledge too.
Does Art and in particular Indian art, break gender norms? How fair is the gender level-playing field in your work discipline? Have women artists (painters, sculptors) found creative and acknowledgement parity with their male counterparts?
I have not found any specific gender biases towards me during my journey. It could be a temperament thing too as I really overlook many things and I continue with my work. And good work cannot go unnoticed. In my field of art there are fewer women artists in ratio and even fewer get noticed. But we do have and have had a fair amount of very strong woman-artists-presence. I do not deny that we in this world are in a very patriarchal space after all.
What is that one compliment to your work that you most dearly prize? Could be from an art-critic or a fellow painter or a connoisseur.
There are many, but I do cherish the one given by Satish Gujral as a note on my first solo show. I took it as a blessing. When Mr. Rameshwar Broota complimented my works, it humbled me. These are the masters who I have had the privilege to know also. I must mention Donald and Shirly Rubin of Rubin Museum, NY. They collected my works and invited me over to show my collection when I was in New York a few years back. Last but not the least when the President of Singapore Mr. S. R. Nathan, wrote a letter to me complimenting my art, which was in his collection.
In India is art and more specifically painting, sculpting, more of an elitist fare? How can it be made more receptive?
In fact in India, art is everywhere. You see inspiring sculptures all over in temples, installation in the form of religious abstraction and even performances which are done on the roads by beharoopiyas. So art is everywhere. We have a major tourist influx because of art. The whole difference is in contemporary or cutting edge art which is in the galleries.
Though a lot of it is being done now in public spaces but some art needs to be viewed separately to maintain the seriousness of the subject. The display has to be according to the context. It is not a matter of elitism but a mature understanding of artists’ minds too. So I feel that what we bring in public domain has to be one, which can be understood by masses and what is exhibited in the galleries may need some specific understanding.
Seema Kohli is a painter who has also got into the performance stream and made it part of her repertoire. She says that the imagery in her paintings organically transcended into a verbal form of communication through poetry. These led to performance oriented narrative pieces for the audience at shows such as ‘In Silence the Secrets Speak’. At the core of the performance lies the symbolism of creation and evolution represented by the act of weaving, the sound of the loom. The theme amalgamates the ancient and the modern Indian traditions and the artist’s own spiritual quest in the expression of her art. She uses poetry and verses as communication between viewer and artist.
Can the state, the government play a more proactive role in the arts?
Absolutely, the state can play a huge role in supporting art and artists. They have certain programmes but they are not enough. These need to be supported right from school level. We also need more patrons, art initiatives and art supporters. Only then the arts can sustain in the long run.
Your political, social or socio-cultural point of view is not dogmatic, or of a religious doctrine. Am I right?
Clearly my view isn’t dogmatic.
How do you see the current social-political scenario in India? Is it at its best conducive to the Arts?
All times, since ages, have been turbulent times. Arts have been able to sustain the times of invasions, world wars and also religious upheavals. It will sustain this time too. None of the times in which our parents or ancestors lived have been actually conducive to arts but we still look up to arts in the form of word-literature or as in an image through all kinds of documentation.
Has the pandemic, corona times affected your stream of work? For an artist these times can be productive in their own way. You paint at your will and in your own company while staying at home.
True. Aparajita, you are absolutely correct. In fact this time has been really enriching as I have been experimenting more, reading and spending more time with myself. I cannot deny that there are changes in my colors and in other media too.
I have written in my blogs of 2020 that the healing power of art feels more relevant and necessary than ever during these strange and challenging times. During COVID-19, art can definitely play an affirmative role. Spending time with art, and I meant not only visual and performing arts, but also activities that may not often be considered art like cooking, gardening, simply doing creative things with your own hands, brings one closer to the elements. This can be a humbling experience, and it creates a sense of harmony with the world.
Has the market for exhibitions, art sales got hit because of an overall economic recession in these pandemic times?
I cannot say that they have been hit badly. Surprisingly. The work is happening though at a slower pace. I am sure it will revive in time. There is a lot of insecurity due to the pandemic. But online auctions and sales are happening. There is a space for everyone.
Webinars, App-sharing, visual interaction over the digital space would be the new norm. Do inform about the change in your work module.
Yes, online presence has increased just as the print media has been totally out. It’s a total change in lifestyle, social and work ethics. Where once having meetings physically was a norm, now zoom, WhatsApp and so many other media have erupted. We are saving on travelling time, burning less fuel, harming our environment less. But all this may incur some behavioral, psychological problems for the human race too.
For me as an artist not much has changed. We create work in isolation in our studios. But the galleries that deal in commercial transactions, they have had to deal with major changes in their mode of working. Online business had already started with online galleries but now that’s more like the need of this hour. Almost all galleries are dealing online. Buyers are also getting used to buying art online now. I am sure that we will all get used to this change. Change is the only constant.
What is your most updated work in progress?
I am installing one sculpture at the Supreme Court, New Building, New Delhi and also at Sardar Patel Bhavan in Patna, Bihar. I look forward to more public art installations, which are in the pipeline.
You have a young, grown up daughter (Anshika Verma) and a son (Svabhu Verma). For the most part of your life you have been a single mother, an independent woman, you have led a life of unconventional choices and responsibilities. After 20 years of marriage, you walked out of it. Back then your daughter was 17 and your son 13. Define your bond with your children in particular.
Anshika Varma my daughter is 35 and son Svabhu Varma is 30 now. We are still growing older together. Twenty one years of my marriage did bring a different bond where they were in a family with many relatives and then moving to a completely singular family system was a bit of a change, not only for them but for me too. We understood the social systems, norms, relationships and more so, patriarchy well and how it operates. We all were learning. That brought us closer as people without hierarchy. We can talk about each other without criticism. Sometimes it is too balanced. We could be termed as friends in a very authentic way.
How do you see your future? As in how would you like to script and paint your advanced age; old age?
I would keep painting, reading and maybe move closer to a forest or sea where I would spend some time before I return to the hustle of my city life. I am a Delhi girl and no one can take that out of me. I do hope I keep painting till the end of my chapter. But if you would like to know my other interests then I love to read and travel. I am not too sure if I can travel in my later years, but words may take me on an adventurous voyage anytime.
Away from her home city Delhi Seema Kohli has another beautiful abode and a more restful one in Goa. Set amidst beatific environ it is her creative sanctum sanctorum. Her molded and created sculpture sits amidst the greens of the Tree of Life.
In one of her interviews Seema had said, “When I was 18 I thought renunciation was the path. I went to my family guru in Haridwar, but my father got me back.” She is glad that she was brought back into the un-renounced world of family and society. “As you grow you realize that wherever you are you make a difference. I continued with my artistic journey in a much better way than what I would have been able to do in the form of a renunciate.”
After passing out from Miranda House (Delhi University) in 1980, with Philosophy Hons, she headed for South Delhi Polytechnic and did Applied Arts for three years. She also worked for two months as an intern at an advertising agency during her art college days.
In the early 1980s she also got married. Her recall in later years confessed that artistic influences at that time were very contained. “Because I myself felt constrained as a daughter, a daughter-in-law and a wife. I would like to compare two images, one which was done in 1990 and one which was done in 2020. In the self-portrait from 1990, I am depicted behind bars. And in one from 2020, I am flying. You can access the artist’s state of mind by their expression through the images, taking you on a voyage of emotions. I believe that art reflects our circumstances. It is clear that I have always been interested in the feminine, gender and the path to liberation”
Seema would further inform this article, “My travels and books have been a major influence and helped me grow as an artist.”
And Seema Kohli’s repertoire of work grew and how! It is broadly divided into thematic groups such as: Hiranyagarbha: The Golden Womb series, Yogini series, Vishwaroopa, Maheshwari, Kundalini, Vaishnavi and Tree of Life.
Tree of Life is inspired by the 1st verse, 15th chapter of the Bhagwat Gita in which Krishna explains to Arjun that life is like a banyan tree where the roots symbolize karma (our actions). In the Puranas it is referred to as Kalpavriksha. It is also referred to in Jainism and Buddhism. The Ritz Carlton, Bengaluru adopted The Tree of Life, as a recurring theme and almost 150 works done by Seema Kohli around this went on to adorn every corridor of the hotel. Time or Kaal as a factor is also central to her work. Another painting is on The Legend of Hariti. One of her outstanding works is a tribute to Van Gogh.
I must end this note with a wonderful poem, And People Stayed Home, that Seema Kohli had WhatsAppd to me on 2nd April 2020, as a healing aid during our Pandemic home-bound stay. Written in 1869 by Kathleen O’Meara, it was of another age and time, a famine poem, but resonated to connect us in the present.
And people stayed home… And read books and listened… And rested and exercised… And made art and played… And learned new ways of being… And stopped… And listened deeper… Someone meditated… Someone prayed… Someone danced… Someone met their shadow… And people began to think differently… And people healed… And in the absence of people who lived in ignorant ways, dangerous, meaningless and heartless, even the earth began to heal… And when the danger ended and people found each other… Grieved for the dead people… And they made new choices… And dreamed of new visions… And created new ways of life… And healed the earth completely… Just as they were healed themselves.
Seema Kohli’s artistry, like all relevant and finest of the fine arts, heals and rejuvenates. She loses herself in her art to find herself in her art.