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Celebration, Life, Colour. The three words that celebrated artist Seema Kohli uses to describe her own art; art that is sometimes complex, sometimes overwhelming, but always captivating.
Honoured with the Lalit Kala Akademi National Award for Women amongst several other accolades, Delhi-based Seema Kohli’s career has spanned over three decades, during which time she has created a body of work that vividly unfolds stories of a fantastical world. Using her own language and brilliant colour compositions, she passionately interlaces mythology, tradition and legends into her soulful creations. And it is life itself, that propels the artist to create such powerful and evocative works of art, be it painting, sculpture, installation or performance. She says quite simply, “Life inspires me. The fact that we are all breathing and miraculously living in spite of the mess that we humans have created, is inspiration enough for me!”
Spirituality and Storytelling
Seema’s artworks reveal a rich spiritual dialogue, layered with divine and metaphysical connotations. The influence can be traced back to her childhood, when she was exposed to different religions as well as eastern philosophies and concepts. “I belong to a very spiritually inclined family of thinkers. Since a young age, I’ve reflected upon who I am and what I am doing. Spirituality is about solving the mystery of understanding yourself, and through my art, I explore questions about our existence and the purpose of our lives,” explains Seema.
Along with spirituality, art also dominated Seema Kohli’s childhood. She says, "I might have become a professional artist much later, but in my mind, I was always an artist. I used to communicate with my family by drawing – on myself, on paper, sometimes even on the walls! At the age of 3, I was totally mesmerised with the magic of how a dot became a line, and line became a form. That movement is something that fascinates me till today.”
Storytelling is an integral part of Seema’s art. “I remember reading stories by Enid Blyton about invisible languages and invisible writing. I think my imagination was fuelled by them. With art, I could create my own language - different images and visuals through which I communicate and weave my own stories,” she shares.
On an Artistic Pursuit
The language of art continued to be Seema’s way of communicating with the world even as she grew older. She pursued a BA in Philosophy at Miranda House in New Delhi, where reading Hume, Einstein, Freud, Descartes and other Western philosophers, opened another world of stories to her. She gained a deep understanding of how different minds worked, which helped tremendously in her creative process.
Seema then completed a Diploma in Applied Arts from South Delhi Polytechnic. The formal training helped in giving form to her artistic expression and exposing her to different mediums and techniques, such as pen and ink, photo colours, the defining of spaces, and application of multiple, but very thin layers of acrylic, all of which are seen in her creations till date. Exposure to graphic design helped her in script writing, a prominent feature in her earlier works. Talking about her unique style, Seema shares, “If you see my work, there is a negotiation of spaces which is very graphic. The concept has taken its own shape and form, by being a part of my work."
Over the years, Seema has developed mastery across different mediums such as painting, sculpture and installation. But through it all, it is the line that has remained very important to her. She admits, “I think in line - that’s how it all begins for me. I don’t visualize a sculpture or an experiential video performance; the initial thought is always rooted in a line.”
The Golden Womb
Of the different themes explored in her art over the years, it is Seema’s deep connect with ‘The Golden Womb’, or Hiranyagarbha, that has been truly iconic. In Vedic philosophy, The Golden Womb is the source of all creation - the consistent energy which is constantly procreating, recreating and positively recycling everything around us. The reference to Golden Womb isn’t just related to physical birth or creation, it goes much wider and deeper, and refers to physiological, psychological, spiritual, ideological or intellectual birth as well.
For Seema, the real connect with the concept, came through a mantra of the Yajur Veda. “I had been hearing this mantra since I was a child. But at the time my mother departed from this world, I heard the mantra during a ceremony, and it was a moment of awakening for me. Something divine took over me completely, and since then, The Golden Womb has not only been an integral part of my art, but of my very existence,” shares Seema.
The Feminine Constant
With all its spiritual influences, at the very heart of it, Seema Kohli’s art is a celebration of the female form and female energy. Shakti, which embodies the feminine form of Lord Shiva, has been explored and expressed continuously through her works. Seema explains, “I am fascinated by the feminine form, I’ve worked only around it, probably because I am familiar with my own form as a female. But it’s not the physical form of the female that I’m representing; it’s the social, psychological and mysterious mystical realms of feminine energy I delve into, which in fact, exists across genders,” explains Seema.
A Language for The Masses
While Seema has participated in prestigious biennales, art fairs and exhibitions around the world, she does not look at art as a prerogative for a select few. Instead, she views it as a language for the masses. And it’s a specific incident from her early days as an artist, that particularly shaped this thinking.
Seema was showing at the prestigious Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai in the late 1990s. A woman, who looked like a helper, used to come in every day, early morning, see all the artworks hurriedly, and leave in a rush. Curious, Seema asked her what she understood of the art in such a haste. To which the women replied, that amidst the chaos of getting off the local train and catching the bus to her final destination, she would go and see different art displays, no matter who the artist was, and the works she had seen would stay with her the whole day.
Seema recollects, “That was such a revelation. I realized then, that art is a language for the masses. The movement was the first language that we had, the second language was art. How could we just bind it and say it’s something only a few of us have the right to experience and understand? Everyone has a right to interpret art in their own way.”
It is with this beautiful thought process, that Seema does not believe in constraining viewers to look at, or understand her own creations, in any specific way. With a rare humility, and a deep sense of self, she enjoys the different reactions to her art, and with the same humility, she expresses how much there is still to be done, and accomplish in her artistic journey.
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