The steep staircase leading to Seema Kohli’s third floor home is nondescript until you near her entrance. Then it’s as if you walk into one of her paintings. The walls are vivid blue and decorated with an eclectic array of objects and images: a family of Rajasthani puppets here, a cluster of cow bells there, the small square red and gold canvases that feature as fragments of time in Kohli’s new film “Swayamsiddha” further up. Miniature red foot prints are painted on the steps. They are Lakshmi’s and they appeared at Divali. Outside the apartment door a lingam and yoni. and Nandi nestle amongst a green mass of plants. Stepping inside I see a dark red wall hung with a collection of wooden masks from around the world and a table-shrine of deities and smoky diyas.
I envisage an overflow of Seema’s creative energy from her canvases to walls and stairwell. But no, after a welcoming hug she tells me that her son, a young film maker, is responsible for the interior design. And as we greet each other, her daughter wrestles with bubble wrap and brown tape in the background. Anshika is packing up her photographs for an exhibition in New Jersey where they will show alongside her mother’s paintings. Proudly Seema shows me a gold wall hung with her daughter’s images – they are very accomplished. A formidably gifted threesome (Seema and her husband parted company some years ago) I think to myself.
Seema is dressed in a dark green block printed kurta, white pyjama and cosy looking shoes, her hair is pulled back from her face in a low bun that exposes her broad forehead and kindly wide set eyes, she wears no make up and little jewellery apart from a trio of rings on one hand. A much loved yellow Labrador is by her side.
We are meeting as she prepares to take her work to Spain for the international contemporary art fair Digi India Valladolid, Spain 2009, where “Swayamsiddha” will be shown. Apart from the US and Spain her work is also showing or about to be shown in London, Bombay and Bangalore. And a big solo show is due to open in April at Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi. Seema Kohli is, it seems, very much “du jour”.
Is she nervous? “No. But the fact is that I want my work to connect with most of the people who see it. So I wonder: “Have I made myself known? Have I expressed myself right?”” And she explains: “I paint for myself. I paint what I like. But at the same time I’m part of this whole system and I want people to understand, I want people to know what I’m talking about. And when I can’t say it so well in words, I paint it.” Seema speaks slowly, looking directly at me and lowering her heavy lids in emphasis. This is clearly important for her, that her art connects, that people understand it. During our talk she often ends a phrase with “you know?” or “you understand?” to ensure that I have got her meaning.
Much of the time Seema is less serious, her deep melodious voice ready to break in to laughter, often at herself. She can, and often does, switch in an instant from profound to humorous and down-to-earth. She is sweetly sympathetic to a new maid who, misunderstanding an instruction, brings milk in a tea pot, and she is charmingly solicitous to me as guest in her home.
“Have you seen my lab?” she asks, “You must see my lab!” And she chuckles as she guides me into a tiny paint spattered bathroom behind the small square room in which she works. Every available surface is stacked with paintbrushes, mugs of pencils and Rotring pens, tubes and tubes of acrylic paints, their boxes discarded in an overflowing bin. Apart from her canvases all of the tools of her art are here.
One canvas sits in the first stages of production on the table next door. Its coat of almost Yves Klein blue, imprinted with lines of corrugated cardboard (sometimes she uses bubble wrap), is waiting to dry. Seema creates her pictures like this, building up layers and layers of colour (each layer has to dry before the next one is applied), before setting to work on the surface with paintbrush and pen. She takes larger works upstairs to the roof. Laying them flat on the ground, she first throws on the colours then has to lie flat on her tummy, spread-eagled across the canvas, to do the drawing. Recent (invisible to me) weight gain is causing Seema some anxiety, “I am so scared the canvas will crack because I’ve got all silver leaf and everything. What to do? I will have to lose weight now. I don’t want to squash my canvases!” and she laughs heartily at herself.
Two recently finished works showing gandharvas and peacocks sit to the side (one picture usually takes about three weeks to complete). Their jewel colours, faceless figures, the working of the surface in pen and ink with repeated motifs, the use of gold, the flow and rhythm of the surface so that it appears involved in a wondrous cosmic dance, make them instantly recognisable as “Seema Kohlis”.
She tells me she is in a “flow” of gandharvas at the moment, which she depicts unusually with eagle wings. Then she points out that the peacock’s feathers do not have eyes. The eyes instead fill the bottom left hand corner of the painting. In the way of much of her work this happened without conscious thought. “Why must the eyes go there?” she interrogated herself afterwards. The answer? “Because consciousness is all around.” Seema describes this as a “constant dialogue” with her work. She may always be “cooking up my own stories” but she also always tests them against the mettle of her own experience and knowledge.
Seema’s work is steeped in Hindu thought and myth. The ideas that she “can’t say so well in words”, that she is so deeply concerned about people connecting with, have all evolved out of a lifetime’s exposure to the mantras of the Vedas, to the Upanisads, to the Bhaghavad Gita. They centre on the generative power of the earth that is female, the beauty and wonderful variedness of the world (“everything is beautiful, Charty, I see beauty all around me, honestly I do… There is beauty in every thing”), its cycles of life-death-life and liberation, its constant birthing, the interconnectedness of all things. And they coalesce in the hiranya garbha, the “golden womb” from which everything comes and which contains all things. Seema has been painting the hiranya garbha for at least a decade following a particular reading of a particular shloka from the Yajur Veda at a havan for her mother. She says to me several times she doesn’t think she will “ever get out of the golden womb”.
For Janet Chawla, long-time friend, writer, and scholar of religion the great significance of Seema’s expression of Hindu philosophical thought is its foregrounding and celebration of the feminine aspects of divinity. Seema’s “God/ess” is also grounded firmly in the material, which of course derives from the same root (“ma”) as the feminine: matter, mater, mother, maya. Material objects from her daily life – ladders, bags, shirts, sofas, film strips – float amongst the trees, lotuses, fish, snakes, dervishes and myriad other motifs in her works. For Seema, all of these are alive and all are connected.
Is her work feminist? She doesn’t know. For her, this is simply the way things are. Describing her recent painting “the Birth of Yogamaya”, she says “I wanted to show how woman is an intrinsic part of man, but only she has the intrinsic quality of procreation, she has a flower coming out of her womb… you understand?” Yes, I nod with conviction. And she continues: “this is the basic mystery which makes me think… the mystery of “how is it?”
This cosmic question underlies Seema’s latest work, one which she is eager to show me. This is her double projection film, “Swayamsiddha”, subtitled “Time and energy make the world”. The film was born out of a long-standing desire to translate her work in to different mediums (some beautiful bronze sculptures have also emerged) and it explores her perennial themes of creation, birth, death, recreation and liberation within the framework of the hiranya garbha.
In a gallery installation, two large screens will play simultaneously in a darkened room. On one Himani, a lithe bodied dancer, represents energy or shakti in a series of beautiful fluid movements against a backdrop of Seema’s work; on the other a shamanic Seema herself represents time, stepping deliberately from square canvas to square canvas, slowly rolling herself in and out of long sheets of cardboard, giant rolls of bubble wrap. In the most charged (for me) moments of the film she cradles a pot drenched in gold and red (read blood), a pot that is simultaneously womb, earth, cosmos. Sacred mantras sung extraordinarily by Vidya Rao complete the work. Although I watch “Swayamsiddha” on a tiny computer screen its impact is profound. I feel witness to some sacred timeless ritual exploring and celebrating the mystery of the universe.
We go upstairs to see where the film was shot. It is day time now, the wind gusts around and workmen’s hammers chip away at a new room under construction, so the atmosphere is a little different. The pot still sits there and the floor is still drenched with red and gold, though lined and spattered with many other colours. Seema tells me about the preparation: “It was great fun because for days we were pouring colour. Me, my son, and the maids and the driver, anybody who came I would give them a bucket… I would just say “uphar jake just splash the colour”…” and she waves her arms demonstratively. Friends present at the filming remember a haunting river of red flowing down the street as they left Seema’s building.
Later in the quiet of Seema’s sitting room the noises of dusk – children’s whoops from the park below, chanting from the Gita Mandir, the twitter of birds and the distant hum of rush hour traffic – float through the balcony doors. Inside, books of philosophy line the shelves, along with her son’s awards for film making. I lean against a giant pink fish cushion and admire a rather splendid upturned Rajasthani umbrella, also pink, that serves as a lampshade. Then I listen as Seema speaks reverently of her parents, her childhood and the life of the house in which she grew up not so very far from where we sit today.
“Not religious. Very spiritual,” she corrects me. “No idol worship in the house. They were absolutely an Advaita family. An Arya Samaj family. A lot of havan, a lot of spiritual reading. At night my grandfather would start singing japji at 2am and we would be sleeping. He would do it loudly so that the whole family heard and nobody had the right to complain. We all knew he was doing it for us. Today I can’t start my day without doing my japji, without doing my Gita. I can’t do it. It has become like my morning tooth-brushing. I think this is what they gave me so profoundly,” and she reflects silently on the gift.
Seema was “put on to painting as a kid” because she was quieter than her two extroverted siblings. “If somebody came to the house and I was in the washroom I would keep sitting there. I was not interested in knowing. I was on my own and I was very happy with my own world.” As a young adult she studied philosophy at Miranda House, a “rich time” for her. It was like “an explosion, knowing something of European philosophy” she confides.
When I ask about her mother, Seema is radiant with the memory. In a low soft voice she tells me, “She was a woman who just LOVED. She was love herself. Throughout her life I never, never heard her say that anything wrong was happening,” and she pauses, lost in the memory. Both her parents remain huge influences, “anything happens, you go back and open that file,” she murmurs.
And other influences? I have read that she has been “more influenced by people than paintings.” What exactly does this mean? Her face lights up and she says forthrightly, “Their lives, Charty. Even Van Gogh. As an artist, his paintings are of course wonderful, he’s a master. But his life – it is passion driven. Rumi’s master Shams Tabraiz. His life. Even Amrita Preetam’s in today’s time. They are passion driven people. People who have not cared about the system, who have had a voice of their own. I have never been motivated by somebody’s painting or art as such, but of course lives, people, characters, they really excite me.” And her eyes shine with that excitement.
I think of the way in which Seema’s own life is driven by her passion for creating art. Almost as a confession she tells me, “If I’m honest with you the time I’m not painting I don’t really know what else to do. I can read. But other than that I get confused. I get very confused.” I think too of the way in which her life is imbued with the constant amazing creative capacity of the feminine energy of the earth, the shakti, that she depicts so beautifully and profoundly in her work.
She has achieved success and renown now. Her works are being exhibited across the globe and buyers are eager to snap them up. How does she feel about this? “You have to keep poking yourself. Where there is no comfort I think that is the space to be… And you should not be adulterated by any adulation you receive.” And what might be next? “After this show I am working on something, of course it is caught up with the womb, but it is going to be very different.. I’m looking forward to it.” So am I!
I speak to Seema on the telephone after her return from Spain, interested to hear how her work was received there. Did it connect? Absolutely. “It was an interesting response” she tells me, “they could all connect with it so easily!” What a happy accolade that an aesthetic so deeply rooted in the sacred traditions of India has the power to resonate with a European audience. She found it a good experience generally, despite having to subsist on bread and tea (the Spanish not familiar with the concept of vegetarianism). “Showing outside the space one belongs to” will once again push her forward, in a new direction perhaps and in a voice which is unmistakably her own.