The Unending Dance of Light: Raks-e-Shams
“If someday I should get the chance to paint, my fingers should be ready for it”
“The time I am not painting I don’t really know what else to do. I get very confused.”
The abiding themes of Seema Kohli’s life are her art practice and her faith – and they are inextricably woven together, like weft and warp.
As a young child she was “put on to painting” on the advice of a doctor. Her parents had taken her because they were worried about their extremely shy, introverted daughter. If paper was not available (and sometimes when it was) she would draw on her body or on her clothes, often the faces of women and their hair. She describes herself as a “compulsive doodler… my hands could not stop.” Even later as a student of philosophy she would leave lectures with drawings all over her jeans, not really sure how they had got there.
Her childhood was full of stories: of myths and legends, of the lives of saints and mystics and of her ancestors. While hiding from visitors in the bathroom of her home she would explore imaginary universes: “I used to start entering those cracks (in the limed walls) and there used to be a whole new world… with rooms and rooms inside… and all the stories of my grandfather and my father and the films we were seeing.” Painfully shy of the outside world she thrived in her own imagination.
She describes her upbringing as spiritual rather than religious. Her family was Advaita, Arya Samaj . There was no idol worship in the house, but havan (fire offering) and spiritual reading, and the stories. And Seema was a deeply spiritual young woman. At seventeen she left home to an Ashram in Haridwar on the Ganges and took initiation. Her father retrieved her, insisting she live a householders life.
In the late 70”s Seema studied at Miranda House, Delhi University, where learning something of European philosophy was “like an explosion” for her. Then she took her fidgety fingers to an applied arts course at South Delhi Polytechnic. This is the closest to formal art training that Seema has come. She found the exposure to different media and the training in design helpful and some of the techniques she learnt – such as calligraphy, the use of pen and nibs – are still central to her work. But it wasn’t long before she realised that she couldn’t be a graphic designer, or an illustrator. She had too many stories of her own and was not interested in telling other people’s or in meeting their deadlines.
This discovery that she wanted to work as an artist coincided with marriage and parenthood. (Seema is no longer married, but is a devoted and adored mother.) For several years time for art making was snatched. At night as the rest of the family slept Seema would draw on the dining table, readying her fingers.
When her second child went to school she set up a permanent drawing table, and supported by her mother “who realised that my sanity came with painting” she carved out time to work at Triveni Kala Sangam (a cultural institution where fine art as well as Indian classical dance and music are practised and studied). She worked there for almost a decade from 1996, relishing the community of fellow artists. During this period she also trained at Bharat Bhavan an arts institution in Bhopal. There too she found a community of artists and the travel away from her home city afforded her an exhilarating taste of freedom, coming as she did from “a cocooned life, a very chaperoned space.”
“Art is an inner exploration. Once I reach an answer, a halt or a standpoint, I express it in the language of painting. ”
“I made my own mythology”
“I do not consider my work as other than me.”
If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear… as it is, infinite.
Everything that lives is holy. Life delights in life.
Faith is a passionate intuition.
Seema’s work is deeply informed by her faith. She is inspired particularly by the myriad traditions (mythological, philosophical, ritual) that fall under the umbrella term “Hinduism”. Since 1998 (the year of her first exhibition) she has been representing the Hiranyagarbha, the golden womb or egg from which the cosmos was born. The tree of life is another enduring leitmotif. Her work explores the great cycle of life-death-life and liberation and the balance of male and female, yin and yang, Shiva and Shakti, Purusha and Prakriti in the cosmos.
But her work is not “Hindu;” magpie-like she will absorb a story or an idea from any tradition (Christian, Buddhist, Sufi, Ancient Greek) and make it her own. She talks of “cooking up” her own stories and making her own mythology. She is rigorously anti-dogmatic in her religious practice, inventing her own mantras and rituals, and in her art making.
One of the most important things to understand when engaging with Seema’s work is that she perceives as real all that she renders. So her Yoginis are not simply illustrations of semi-divine female beings from a Tantric cult that became mainstream and flourished between 9th and 11th centuries but the rendering of energies that are operational in her life today. “These various energies are constantly actually making me feel WOW… I cannot deny that they are influencing my life and are a part of my existence,” she says.
Seema’s work is part esoteric and fantastical but it is also firmly grounded in nature and domestic life. Birds, animals, fish, flowers, trees, suns and moons float alongside material objects such as coat hangers, ladders, handbags, sofas and buildings on her canvases. In the long scroll in this exhibition there are chai glasses and armchairs, references to the artist’s love of tea and curling up with a good philosophy book as well as to the tea stains forming the ground of the work. This combination of elements, a kind of “magic realism,” makes a deeper point too; the spiritual is rooted in the material, in maya, in the body.
It is generally accepted that all world religions are patriarchal but Hindu traditions are interesting in making space for a female divine principle. Women may have lower social status – in fact this is one of the great paradoxes – but they are worshipped as goddesses and goddesses are worshipped. In Seema’s work the feminine aspect of divinity is always foregrounded and celebrated. She is Shakti after all – the constantly generating potent life force animating all existence.
Kishore Singh, critic and head of exhibitions and publications at Delhi Art Gallery notes that Seema’s work is unusual in presenting a point of view that is both feminine and feminist. “It is always the female in her work who has the ideas, the sense of freedom, the flights of imagination and expression,” he says. “She attempts a holistic vision but actually subscribes to female independence.” For him the great narrative of her work is empowerment: “a quest for independence, a search for inner strength, standing for yourself, but not at the cost of anyone or anything else.” This could also be the narrative of her life.
Seema flourishes on the edge of a contemporary art scene that seems to regard outward displays of religion or Indian-ness with suspicion. Seema’s work, her painting in particular is unmistakably Indian, both in its subject matter and in its form: the bright jewel colours and flat surfaces, decorated with repeated motifs in mantra like detail, calling to mind some exquisitely woven or embroidered textile. “India has vanished from the work of many artists,” says Kishore Singh, “but in one group it is still central.” “Contemporary Indian” is an interesting space he says, and one appreciated more by collectors than critics.
The Unending Dance of Light: raks e shams.
“Yajnavalkya,” Arthabhaga said again, “tell me – when a man has died, and his speech disappears into fire, his breath into the wind, his sight into the sun, his mind into the moon, his hearing into the quarters, his physical body into the earth, his soul (atman) into space, the hair of his body into trees, and his blood and semen into water – then what happens to that person?”
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 6th Century BCE.
“We see death as a full stop. But it is not. The energy does not stop flowing at that point. It recoups, re-forms, and moves on. Death is not the end, it is energy changing direction, coursing on again in a different form and space.”
The stimulus for The Unending Dance of Light was the idea of Benares or Varanasi or Kashi – the sacred city of light where so many come on pilgrimage or at the end their lives. It is said that to be cremated on the banks of the holy River Ganges takes you not to another birth but to liberation, mosksha, freedom from the cycle of birth and death.
Corpses shrouded in cloth are borne on bamboo biers through the narrow streets of the city, hastening to the burning ghats where cremation happens around the clock. Seema experiences this as a “vortex” of energy, a place where the “dance of rejuvenation” is happening in quick time and quite “nakedly”.
Thomas J Hopkins writes that “Death is as close to being universal as anything we know.” And “almost as soon as we have evidence of human culture… we have evidence of belief in some kind of afterlife… a sustained assumption that death is not the end of personal existence.”
Seema has been investigating the beliefs and death rituals of many different cultures. For her, emphatically, death is not “the end”. Even if you look at it purely scientifically – our bodies at death are recycled into elements, if buried they return to the earth, if burned to the air – there is a kind of continuity even if it is not one of “soul”.
For the “The Unending Dance of Light” video Seema performed on Varanasi’s “far shore” – the sandy eastern banks of the river across from the burning ghat of Manikarnika. The far shore provides a striking contrast to the city: devoid of buildings and people, dogs roam and birds circle in the skies above. The beauty and mayhem of the city is a cinematic backdrop across the water.
Seema’s performances are unrehearsed and unscripted. After research she simply puts herself in her chosen space sees what comes: giving herself up to a spontaneous interaction with the environment and the energies she perceives there. In Parikrama she ran around the yogini temple at Bheraghat in a half trance; in the Unending Dance of Light her performance is slower, more meditative.
She uses props such as the rope from the boat to represent our binding desires, and then it becomes an umbilical cord connecting all beings with the super consciousness. (The umbilical cord in her paintings is often the lotus stem.) She draws a yoni in the sand and curls up imagining the coming together of soul and body in the womb. She chances upon a small sapling and plants it in the dry sand. She rolls into and buries herself in a grave, which is also for her a womb. And at the climax of the film in the darkness against the burning fires of Manikarnika she lights her own pyre and strikes more than 100 clay pots with a bamboo rod.
From the film out to all the other works…
First time in five years she is showing works across so many different media.
Something about the unending dance of light being the journey of the soul.
Drawn to the city like other artists before her – Ram Kumar, Manu Parekh.
Cyclical nature of existence. Life-death-life. Cycles…
Interconnectedness of all things.
Paperworks – etchings, drawings
Photographs/Stills from video – mixed media.
Acrylic on canvas.t
Her work itself can be described as an unending dance of light.