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.
“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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Beyond 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.”
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.
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!”
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.
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”.