8th March women’s Day Celibration

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…..celebrate….
for all those women who have a voice and who do not have one,
for they understood the silence…
celebrate….
for all those women who walk the untraded path…
true or false…
moral or immoral
good or bad
for what is for one is not for another…
celebrate…
for all those women exploring, unearthing,
in the rhythm to the smile and laughter of their soul
celebrate….
to being a woman not only in body but in soul….

 

a monolouge “is death possible?” at House of Tales,Kala Ghoda Art Festival,Mumbai 2014

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IS DEATH POSSIBLE…..

Is death possible? Is there an end….i wonder. Everything I look around seems to be pulsating with a certain rhythm. The trees, the bushes, the shrubs, the flowers, the closed bud, the pregnant clouds in the sky, the soft drizzle, the thrust of that droplet from the glaciers which defies all mountains and egoistic rocks and bursts into a waterfall flowing into a stream joining hands with throaty laughter widening its girth into a river and merging into the sea…seas into oceans and oceans melting into the skies. Evaporating into the limitless air coming back as life again…falling back on earth, consummating the whole life form. In the process of all this activity, what all has it given life to? Everything is recycled, positively, rejuvenated, new…. everything is on a serious but a continuous journey. Isn’t it amazing to see that innate table, that cup full of tea, that toothpaste on my brush, that half eaten apple, that little ant carrying that morsel of sugar, that firefly in my garden, that twinkling star melting into the infinite sky, …can we differentiate either from living and non living. Is this questioning only in my mind ….are all these elements not thinking? Is it that my limited mind sees some as lesser or greater? Or I am just incapable to penetrate into their lives and journeys. This is the mystery of the cosmos; we all know the answer, deep inside. Are we ready to accept and realize it…
The choice is ours…

I am trying to engage with the philosophical enquiry of life,to grasp the metaphysical truth of existence and the cosmic energy that is responsible for all creation.Employing the fundamental tenets of mythology as tools, I wish to emphasise the cyclicality of existence and the rejuvenation of life forms through the unending processes of birth, death and re-birth.

My performance at the RajaRani Temple at Bhubhaneshwar, Orissa attempts to explore these fundamental questions about the cycle of life ,death and rejuvenation. Within the space of this centuries old,idol less temple, I re-incarnate myself as the idol and absorb, react and reinterpret the energy that inhabits around me during which I engage in a series of symbolic gestures like encircling the temple or closing and opening and closing the door of the garbhagriha. The idea of circumambulation-an act which finds resonance in Hindu worship and shamanic practices as well as in the whirling dervishes of Sufism is an integral gesture of my performance signifying the never ending loop of creation and the continuation of life rhythm. The closing and opening of the door becomes a visual metaphor of the journey towards heightened awareness of the Divine as well of the Self.
Through this performance I interrogate myself on the relationship of life and death, of continuity, of belief, of faith, of ritual, of consolidation and disintegration of it all. The relationship between the idol and me. Does the idol need me or do I the worshipper needs an idol? Using the body as an instrument to unshackle the confines of the body, flesh and blood, the intellect becomes subservient to consciousness readily supplying the archetypes latent in my subconscious.
The work actively contests the role of an artist today.
Is it different from the traditional role of a priest/shaman/psychic?
Has it evolved to mean something more?
Engaging with a wide circuit of references like iconography, world mythology, philosophy and literature, as tools, I weave together a story to recover my relationship with this small gap of “death or rejuvenation” through the lost feminine narrative in cultural history.
Against the background of the recorded performance at the RajaRani temple, Bhubaneswar in Odisha, India the artist performs a monologue. It is a live site specific performance lasting over 22min 30sec.
Concept, Direction-Seema Kohli
Phography and edit SakthiDoss
Sound Sahil Vasudeva
23min 25sec

A talk with my friend Ratna Rao Shekar in Delhi about my intense connection with art.

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Every morning, every day of the week when she is in Delhi and not traveling extensively for her exhibitions and talks as she frequently does these days, Seema Kohli follows one unfailing ritual – appearing in her studio by 8 am. This she does after a session of yoga and exercises with a trainer. And she arrives at the studio wearing her hippest and nicest clothes! In winter, she wears jackets and boots. In summer, she comes in skirts and sleeveless shirts. To Seema, the studio where she thinks, doodles and paints, is a sacred space. And her work, even work that has yet to take a form, is a potential being who is waiting to make its appearance. “I feel I am going out to meet my best friend, the painting, and feel so content being in my studio. Why should I wear old clothes for such an occasion, then?’’ she asks with smile.
Even during the hectic week of the India Art Fair this year – when on e of the galleries was showing her works, including a large 12 ft installation called ‘Chimes of Freedom’ – she spent mornings in her studio putting in some amount of work. “I can’t work after I come back in the evenings, after I meet so many people. My head is buzzing with too many distractions then,” she says.9
“I feel lost if I don’t spend time in my studio. Even when I travel, when I take my sketchbooks, I am itching to come home and be in my studio. I have a sense of belonging in this space,” she confesses. Seema likes the whole process of being in the studio where she can stay quiet and give in to the process of creativity. This is the space where she confronts herself and the demons of her life, not an easy thing but one that a creative artist needs to contemplate. “I like to work in solitude and prefer it if there is no one except Ramesh (her helper) who quietly makes tea or keeps an unwanted visitor away,” she says candidly.
Into this garbhagriha, if I may be allowed to call her studio that, she will sneak in even in the middle of the night to work on an incomplete canvas. “Did you know last night I came up to the studio at 4am to alter the face of the woman in my painting? Why? I don’t know, but she wanted me to alter it, I guess,” she says, clearly understanding her own creative process even if we are a little confused by this obsession
Seema is a single mother, and has been one for over a decade. When you wonder if her other commitments as a housewife and mother do not detract from her work, she says firmly that the household is not her priority and she doesn’t feel the pressure. The pressure is in the need to create. The necessity of life, like breathing, is the work.
Among the most well respected women artists in the country today, she has had 20 solo shows, and her work is part of several private collections and displayed in public spaces, including the Mumbai and Delhi airports and the Rubin Museum. But more than all this and the awards that have come her way, what is interesting is how prolific and fecund she is as she drenches canvases with an uninhibited use of colors and images drawn both from mythology and urban life.ps
There are large trees with roots, deer, cows, snakes, sometimes cups and hangers… But everywhere there is the woman as a counterpoint. Her oeuvre has included paper, canvas, oils, acrylics, installations and multimedia productions. And when you ask her how she has moved from one medium to another with such ease, she says, “It is not I who have moved, but it is the work that wants me to try another form, dimension or medium so that she can manifest herself differently. Once she may want to be seen on canvas, at another time as an installation, yet another time as a multimedia presentation.”

Clearly, one can see that Seema looks at her work as some form of energy that calls to her in the middle of the night or any time of the day to take up her brush and paints so that she can take an avatar, a form. “When I work, I let go of myself as a person, diminish my ego and become the brush and sometimes even the canvas. I align my mind

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and body to that energy in space that wants to manifest itself and take a form through me,” says Seema, who one would think must struggle to explain her concept in a world driven increasingly by commercialism.
But mostly, she likes to let the viewer draw his or her own conclusions from her works, and she says she enjoys their interpretations of it even more than how she conceived it originally. “When I put an exhibit out there, I hope it communicates to the viewer. In the time it is in my studio it is my communication with my canvas.
There is the silken thread that connects the viewer and the artist and this thread is the painting (or any other manifestation). If some 30 hours of the thought process behind my work communicates something to the viewer in a few minutes I think I have achieved my purpose. Ultimately, the purpose of a painting is to communicate,” Seema believes.12
Whatever feminists and activists might feel, she does not think it is her duty to deliver any message through art, which is primarily an internal journey for her. She may contribute or sympathise with women’s issues or political stances, but when she does this it is not necessarily through her art. Art is not a socialist movement, she is clear. “I don’t want to change anything. What I like is the khushboo (fragrance) of the painting, the process of working itself and the self discovery that happens during this process. And I want the viewer to feel this fragrance through my art,” she says. Any creative expression is the fragrance of the society – it changes society at its own pace.
Seema’s art is philosophical, raising as it does questions about who we are, what the universal consciousness is, and how the universe is continuously expanding, collapsing only for rebirth. Her work, then, is a quest, an internal dialogue to find meaning. “There are never any clear answers to the questions we have. Nor do I have any answers to the big questions myself. What is important is the journey, the artistic journey,” she confides.10
As a manifestation of these eternal questions, her works are replete with the lushness of creation itself – of flowers, especially lotuses, trees with roots that go deep into the soil, celestial beings in deep meditation or floating in the skies, and above all, women.
“I have worked in different mediums but the subject has always been the same, the quest for truth and the self. Of creation and dissolution,” she elaborates. She began the quest with pen and ink drawings on paper, moving to photo colours, oils on canvas, and mixed media on canvas. “All these have been refined in the course of the journey. I began with mythological figures like Krishna, Shiva, Kali. But in pushing the artistic frontiers I have discovered the hiranyagarbha, the ‘golden womb’.
”She explains hiranyagarbha as originating in a mantra in the Yajurvedaas the eternal womb from which we have emerged. This is a state that’s profoundly innocent, almost unconscious, without any duality. In this state of profound mediation when Purusha, whom we think of masculine, wanted to see himself and the process of creation, he held up a mirror, as it were, to create Prakriti or the feminine energy. “Just as it is a mother who can tell who the father is, it is Prakriti
who reveals to Purusha his creative powers. She is his mirror. Thus there is no duality between male and the female. There is no yin or yang. They are both aspects of the supreme consciousness,” reveals Seema.
11Beyond the golden womb is the unmanifest, that which is before time and space. It is a dreamlike state that is blissful but that has a powerful urge towards creation. “My works are a contemplation of that state or of that being. They are a portrayal of the various experiences that one goes through in the act of creation and evolution. Portrayal of this unending journey is my creative path. I feel liberation is a mirage, maybe only an idea that I pursue in my creative journey too,” she says expounding her beliefs.
Seema’s works, beautiful as they are, replete with details that you can look at for hours with new meanings emerging according to your state of consciousness, are philosophical in nature. So much so, one wonders if she is an artist who wants to find answers to certain philosophical questions through art, or if she is a philosopher who uses the medium of art to raise and examine these questions. But one presumes with Seema that there is no distinction between the two, just as there is no distinction between Seema the person and Seema the artist. Or for that matter, between Seema and her works Or between Seema and her viewers Or between her and me For we are all part of the same illusion
Seema’s art stems from her philosophical bent of mind, which in part originates from a family being rooted in spiritualism, but to a great extent is her own DNA. Seema grew up hearing stories from her grandfather, a deeply religious and compassionate man who told her stories from mythology, of gods and men who were brave, courageous and forgiving. They experimented so they could achieve liberation.
Seema reveals that her paternal grandfather Hakim Chunni Lal Kohli was her first teacher; he introduced her to this journey of wonder. A hakim by profession in Rawalpindi he was not only well versed in the vedas but was ‘hafaze Quran’ (meaning he knew the Quran Sharif by heart). It was he who initiated her into her first mantra, and this he did when she was still a little girl who was afraid one night and couldn’t sleep. “He gave me a mantra to put me to sleep,” Seema laughs. Incidentally, she repeats the mantra even now, when she is distressed or troubled. He was such an evolved soul, Seema remembers, that he knew the time of his death and told his family not to mourn for him as he was going home, and he felt he was going to a mela. “I remember during his last days he was as if in some sort of trance and unaware of time. He would get up during the night and begin to recite the paath or sacred verses. It was a revealing time for all of us. He shared so much with us, taking away all the awe we may have felt about death,” Seema says.
Because of him and his friend Lalaji, who was also a spiritually emancipated soul who stayed in their home, she was privy to many philosophical discussions and discourses. At that time several saints and philosophers would come to their house in Rajendra Nagar in Delhi for discourses. Their house was always buzzing with deep thinking people, and before the Gita Mandir came up (a landmark to reach her home now), most of the visiting religious teachers stayed in their home. As a child, when Guruji Gitanand Bhikshu found her loitering around before and after school, he initiated her into the Bhagavad Gita. “It was he who taught me to question things. At the same time to say qubool, I accept.”7
Seema says some members of her family had such an intimate and approachable relationship with the gods that one of her aunts would lock up the images of gods and goddesses in a cupboard when she was angry with them!
Early on in life Seema began worshipping Shakti in secret, as her father Krishan Dev Kohli did not approve of such idol worship (because they were Arya Samajis). One day when he found the smoke of an oil lamp coming out of her cupboard, he realised he couldn’t do anything about it and let her worship the goddesses she wished. Once she finished college, Seema even left home to go to Hardwar to become a renunciate, until her father arrived there and asked the guru to persuade her to go as he wanted her to experience that important stage in life, that of the grihasthya.
3 She returned to marry her childhood friend and neighbour. While she says marriage is a beautiful stage, almost in the first month of being married, she realised that this was not for her for she found it too confining and restricting to her as a person. But since she couldn’t dream of walking out of the marriage, she put up a façade of being the perfect daughter-in-law and wife, all the while continuing to paint in her spare time. Marriage tested all the things she had learnt in life, especially important lessons of acceptance and patience. Since her husband left her to herself, she experimented with yoga, tantra and meditation. She also painted maniacally using acrylic, washes, oils, brushes and pencils, but only after she made sure all the household chores were done. “I didn’t see the confusion in my art, but my sister who has a painting from this period wondered even then about what was troubling me that I painted with such melancholy!”4
She stayed married for 21 years and had two children, Anshika and Svabhu. But there came a point, reasons she does not want to explain, when she decided to walk out without a paisa in her account but not feeling the need to ask her father for any help either. “One Diwali, we had Rs 17 and I asked the children what they wanted to do with it since we could not afford either crackers or sweets. But we had the best Diwali ever as we were on our own and had each other,” says Seema, who thinks of her two children as the angels who live in her house! Incidentally, both the children are in creative fields themselves, not unlike Seema.
Looking back on her life, Seema does not regret a thing about it. Not running away from home to be a renunciate, not the marriage, not evens the walking out of the marriage. “This is all part of the journey. This life itself is the question, even if we don’t know where we are arriving or if we need to arrive at all.
”Seema, incidentally, has a degree in philosophy from Miranda House and a degree in Applied Art from South Delhi Polytechnic. Since she had no formal training in art and is a self-taught artist, the arriving has taken longer.1
But she began painting at a time when art was not commercial. It took her 20 years before she could have her first solo show. “These days which young artist would want to wait for two decades before she is recognized? But pain is important for an artist. Without pain can a baby be born? There has to be tension and the pain of not reaching a solution. Unearthing that solution is the khoj. That is the truth the artist seeks to unravel,” feels Seema.
She continues her story of self discovery through art. As she said, it is important for her to keep rediscovering herself as an artist. “Money comes and goes. We have only that much shares of worldly riches that are allotted to us. What I pray for is that the creativity does not dry up”.

 

 

 

 

 

JDCA Film Forum:Art and Artist

I was delighted to be a part of the Jatin Das Centre Of Art‘s 8th National Film Festival on Art and Artist held on 11,12 and 13 January 2014 in Bhubaneshwar,Orissa.The eight year old event that started off as a small gathering of sorts now held a full house.

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JDCA film forum organises annual,non competitive,thematic,national and international festival on documentary,short and animation films.This year over 40 films were shown to an eager audience followed by interaction with the film maker and artist from across the country.Some interesting film like Shuva and Me:A journey with Shuva Prasanna by the acclaimed director Goutam Ghosh was met with applause.Many films and scholars introduced the spectators to different crafts traditions of India like Kathputli Art,palm leaf portrait paintings,folk song tradition like Ban’s Geet and Wangala Garo festival.

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The focus of the festival was on Folk and Tribal Art and Culture and the participant were introduced to the rich and vaired Oriya culture by way of performances as well as demonstration of crafts and textiles by crafts people.The blending of tribal,folk and contemporary was rather interesting to witness.

My three experimental films-Invocations, Cogito Ergo Sum and Swayamsiddha- Myth,Mind and Movement were shown at the festival.I was happy to have this enriching experience and discussion with the audience who had many words of appreciation as well as useful feedback for an artist.

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Is consciousness conscious?

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Last November, I participated in ACT[Artist create together]at National Gallery of Modern Art, Banglore which was conceptualised by a group of fellowperforming artists and was led by me, Murali Cheeroth (Bangalore) and Smitha Cariappa (Bangalore) .

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The idea was  to provoke an informal interaction between the artist and the audience using performance as the tool of expression and dialogue.

At NGMA Banglore.

Co-ordinated by Lina Vincent, ACT was performed at the parking lot of  NGMA Banglore, the performances by Jeetin Rangher (Kashmir),Katarina Rasic (Serbia), Dimple Shah (Bangalore), Smitha Cariappa, Murali Cheeroth, Clemence Barret (France) and Paramita Das (Kolkata/Edinburgh) drew an enthusiastic group of spectators.

My interactive performance spoke about the ‘one and many’ consciousness of being which I described in poetic verse as follows-

Am I the soul or the body?
Am I the body or its parts?
Am I within another body or there are bodies inside me

Am I the seed or am I a forest
Do I have the potential of a forest? or do I have the potential to be the forest?
Am I the creation or the creator?
Am I one or many?
Am I many in one?
Is consciousness conscious?
 
I try to find my answers
In color in making my body an instrument
A means where as an end

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Performance of Is consciousness conscious?at NGMA,Banglore

I stood against a stark white canvas, arms outstretched, and invited the audience to paint my outline on it. Soon some people began to paint on me instead of around me provoking question of audience agency,participation and violation of one’s body.

While Bangalore put the per-formative energy to the fore,

I walk the path of water and skies

My work is primarily a celebration of the female form and energy the source of the twin forces of creation and destruction. As Shakti, the divine cosmic energy flowed, three rasas or guna emerged, from which the whole universe was created -Sattva [saraswati] Rajas [laksmi] and tamas[kali].These expanded into Saptamatrikas the Ashtalakshmi, Navdurgas and the Dusmahavidyas .In time, the manifestations resulted in the creation of the Chausath Yogini and the Ekyasi Yogini, forms that continue to evolve to satisfy our needs or to bring balance to the world .

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The Chaunsath Yogini at Ranipur Jharial,Odisha was the first Yogini site I visited in 2005. Though I had been working on the idea on feminine energies like Hiranyagarbha, Saptamatrikas, Dusmahavidyas and Ashtanayikas for a while, a more full-fledged plunge into the visual representation of Yogini came only after I visited these spaces and aligned my mind body and soul to them in 2012.With this, I also made my foray into time based media work absorbing, reacting and reinterpreting the energy that inhabits these sacred sites. For me, the Yoginis now did not only exists in a mere visual form but also in close physical  form.

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Chaunsath Yogini at Ranipur Jharial,Odisha

The Chaunsath Yogini at Ranipur Jharial is situated on the top of a hill in seclusion from the villages settlements located nearby. The main Yogini temple shares remarkable topographical similarities with other Yogini sites like the one at Mitauli and Bhedaghat at Madhya Pradesh. The rocky landscape that reminds one of intergalactic space and the presence of a water body nearby presents an ideal setting for female mendicants to meditate and practice austerities. The circular hypaethral form of the Yogini temples is an important architectural feature for it allows the circulation of divine cosmic energy that inhabits these sites. This idea of the “circulation of divine energy” also exists in Sufism with the circular dance of whirling dervishes as well as the in shamanic practices. At the site, we also see the ancient remains of a once existing “maze” –a series of concentric circles –a concept, which is shared by numerous belief system in Sufism, Christianity and Buddhism. This “maze” allows entry for two people and is not just a physical encounter but also a spiritual union with the Higher Form.

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Chaunsath Yogini at Ranipur Jharial,Odisha

This Tantric experimentation was not only restricted to the realisation of the eternal self but also to gain spiritual power that would then enable them to help others. Many Kings would install these female goddess idols especially Saptamatrikas to attain fierce powers to win over enemies which however is not a prescribed use of this divine energy.

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In and around Chaunsath Yogini at Ranipur Jharial,Odisha

Today, we see the return of the mysterious science of the yogini cult. In a pedagogical sense, yoginis were a very important thought system and practiced form of Tantric worship that centred around the perfection of the body to achieve perfection of the soul. Even in the fiercest form, we can see the serenity and rejoicement in their posture. The presence of Bhairava is indicative of the balance of the male and the female energy within them.

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Bhairav,Chaunsath Yogini at Ranipur Jharial,Odisha

The site of Naresar, near Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh is a noteworthy for a unique yoni sculpture which houses 15 smaller yonis within itself. The archaeological survey of India is trying to restore the ancient temple complex at Naresar to its former glory when it existed as a secluded spot of meditative worship. There are several carved temple blocks which they are trying put together but sadly without much though.

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Yoni,Naresar, near Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh

The site of Chaunsath Yogini at Mitauli, near Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, although dedicated to the 64 Yoginis sadly now has been replaced by 64 cement lingams without any pedestal or yoni from which the lingam traditionally arises. The yogini idol that were once placed within the temple niches have either been stolen, damaged or transferred to the Gwalior Museum nearby. Under the given circumstances, repleting the empty niches with cement lingams is not only a historical error and a false representation of the cultural practices of the past but also points towards a deep neglect of the feminine form. If substituting the yoginis with modern day lingams was seen as a viable option on account of the loss of the ancient Yogini idols, wouldn’t replacing the lost idols with maybe smaller replicas of Yogini sculpture been a more thoughtful gesture? For me, this is a grave error that is most unfortunate amounting to the “rape of the sacred site.” Invocation III, a meditation at the site of Chaushath Yogini at Mitauli, near Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh was then more than anything a cry for the lost and neglected feminine form.

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Chaunsath Yogini at Mitauli, near Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh

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Chaunsath Yogini at Mitauli, near Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh

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Lingams at Chaunsath Yogini at Mitauli, near Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh

What excites me about these places is the parallels we see in these Tantric practices and other extant faiths like Sufism, Buddhism or Hinduism. At a time when the concept of religion did not exist or compartmentalised as today, personal identity and practices were much more fluid and there was constant borrowing and exchange of ideas that took place. I feel that today when the urge to answer “Who are we?” and “Where we come from?” is so strongly rooted in a religious identity, we tend to compartmentalise practices and beliefs into regimented and narrows ways which according to me is a practice much in vain.

Decoding Seema Kohli’s Art

I have often been told that my is extremely layered,symbolic and ensconced in mythological narrative and Tantric thought.Therefore although fascinating for my spectators they also struggle to grasp the narrative and thought behind my work.While I do not want to impose a single reading of my work and each one is free to interpret them in their own personal way,I thought I should de- mystify my work and give a brief background about them to my friends and art enthusiasts.

Let me begin with my five paneled work “Myth is Reality”[2010].And yes,there are many more to come in the series!

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Myth is Reality[2010],72 x 82 inches,Mixed Media on canvas

Shakti, the female procreative energy comprises of three gunas of satva,rajas and tamas.Tamas governed by Goddess Kali [or Kaal/time] which is hidden giving the feeling of being static is however the space of creation. At the top of the central panel in the painting, we see the ferocious black Kali while in her white avatar she sits on a cosmos which tells the story of creation in a series of non-concentric circles. From the centre of the cosmos, we see a lotus emerge from the navel of a woman followed by a variety of animals, trees, clouds and finally yoginis. The robes are representational of our worldly bonding that Kali entangles us with.

The right panel shows the satvic form of Shakti-Parvati in union with the male principle Shiva demonstrating the union of Purusha-Prakriti resulting in the opening of the third eye or enlightenment. Below we see Shakti riding a lion representing the male principle demonstrating total control and her multiple hands indicates multi-tasking. The left panel shows the birth of Shakti from Vishnu’s navel [though traditionally it is Brahma who emerges from Vishnu] once again showing the harmony of male and female principle in the cosmos. Lotus symbolises gyan or knowledge of Shakti in him .Gandharvas or flying celestial and the Tree of Life can be seen in the background while the female form rises supremely to show the omnipresence of the female energy.

On the extreme right, we see the birth of cosmos from the navel of Shakti while celestial deities in yogic posture can be seen floating below amongst various birds to indicate the derivation of the posture from the birds for centralising the seven chakras with the vortex. The Tree of Life symbolic of unlimited knowledge where the branches fall down as potent trees giving birth to new roots. On the extreme left, the tree with tea cups hanging from them is juxtaposed with the Banyan Tree-the contemporary source of contemplation with the ancient symbol of knowledge.