An exploration of energies at Sunder Nursery

Seema Kohli with her sandstone sculptures

Seema Kohli with her sandstone sculptures   | Photo Credit: Anshika Varma


City-based artist Seema Kohli is showing in Delhi after a decade — and this time she’s taking her art out of the gallery

Three years ago, Delhi-based artist Seema Kohli made a 12-foot-tall sculpture of Goddess Kali. Attempts to bring her out have so far failed. “Shows said that she wasn’t contemporary enough,” says the 59-year-old artist of the work. Now, the Kali, among 64 sandstone sculptures and five bronzes, will be shown for three months starting this Saturday at the open-air Sunder Nursery premises.

This is perhaps Kohli’s more forceful foray into taking art out of the gallery and into public spaces. She’s been doing so already with commissioned pieces at the Delhi and Mumbai airports, at the Manipal University, and hotels like the Leela Palace. In the first quarter of next year, she will unveil a 20-foot-tall installation at the Supreme Court premises, inspired by The Tree of Life.

This is also Kohli’s return to showing in her home city after nearly a decade. The artist will open this collaboration with Gallery Ragini with a narrative performance of her own on Saturday. The entire effort, titled A Circle of Our Own, will speak of how her practice has expanded, she says, and will specifically take a deep dive into the idea of the Yogini, a carrier of feminine energy.

A glance into the artist’s over three-decade-long practice shows her deep engagement with the concept of cosmic and spiritual histories: “There was a time I was talking about the amalgamation of both [male and female] energies. Then, I spoke of only the womb, the idea of which then evolved into Shakti. But now, I’m more about the fragments that comprise and complete the idea of Shakti — how she operates, what are the means of operation.”

As she sits at her long, wooden, paint-splattered desk in her Rajinder Nagar home, the artist talks about how the exploration of energies must be looked at as a contemporary concern, and how people are quick to slot and label her work. Edited excerpts.

This is the first time you will do a narrative performance in Delhi. Where else have you performed?

I first moved to narrative performance in 2002. That video has still not been shown. But I’ve done [other] performances in six universities in the U.S., at the NGMA Bengaluru, Kolkata Creativity Centre, Royal Opera House, Kochi Biennale, Venice Biennale. The earlier performance was called Unending Dance of Light, also based on the idea of feminine energy, but not in this specific form of the Yogini, which the current performance deals with. In this one, I’ll be talking about how the Yoginis came into existence, what the concept even is.

How long did it take for you to write and formulate this narrative? And what were your references?

These are fragments I have consolidated over about two years. I’ve referred to the Kal Bhairav Tantra, the Kali Kaula Tantra, Sapta Matrika by Shivaji Panikkar, and till the time I was talking about Shakti, the works of Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, and of course [religious historian] Madhu Khanna.

Is it tough to translate these scriptural and academic references into your paintings and sculptures?

While I do take a lot of scriptural reference, I have also gone through a complete personal involvement with this subject over the years. A lot of these ideas are our traditions that developed into our culture. It was important for me to contemporise it. It’s really all about the responses to the energies that are around us. I have also been travelling to many dead sites across India to understand this.

What are dead sites exactly?

I mean temples that don’t currently do any rituals on site, but did so at one time – for over centuries. That energy has remained there, and I could still feel it and connect with it. I’ve been to 15 such sites in Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, and Chhattisgarh. Historically, they were very vibrant. Yoginis would stay here, do their dhyaana. My point is that the Yogini wasn’t just a mythical subject. We are told now that they used to fly around or that they had anthropomorphic heads like snakes — this is all very silly. I feel that they had heightened intuitive powers.

Most of your work has focused on the religious, cosmic and spiritual energy through history...

This is such an elaborate subject. And because there is not much knowledge about it, everyone slots it: ‘oh this is very traditional’; ‘this is Hindu art’. But that’s not it. It’s time for us to be more fluid. I am talking about feminine energy, which, the moment it got into the control of patriarchy, diminished. Suddenly a Yogini was seen as someone evil, someone who you’re not to be seen with. Anyone with that occult power were termed negative. The same energy came back as the Ruhani and Sufiani in the Mughal Era. Currently, we see them emerging as various women in power, like CEOs and leaders.

Are you saying then that this energy manifests only in women?

No, it can be in anyone — any human, plant, animal. But this form of energy just cannot be negated. It is such a contemporary subject. I’ve only given them a form — just as they were given at one time in order that people can understand.

You distil these ideas into paintings, murals, sculptures, film, and now narrative performance too. How easy, or not, is it for you to alternate between mediums?

I don’t find it difficult to move my image to a different medium because it’s the image that dictates it. I’m doing its job. I’m also just a medium to take it further. Also, there are collaborations I do with sculptors, just like any other artist would. It is the vision that matters, and how you see your images coming forward.

A Circle Of Our Own, in association with Gallery Ragini, from November 16, 2019 - February 16, 2020; Sunder Nursery, Nizamuddin

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 1:13:32 AM |

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