by Dhiraj Singh
IN THE RACE FOR FITTING into the ‘isms’ of modern and contemporary art many artists forget that there is a vast gene-pool of ideas within them that they can draw from. Of course, that’s easier said than done. There is really no book that says that this is what an artist must do. Or this is the way an artist should think. Or create. I am certainly not making a case for such a book. What I am saying though is that the best works are created when an artist goes deep into his or her consciousness and finds that scar tissue that has changed the course of his or her life. It is through the exploration of such deeply buried memories that artists create their best works.
Seema Kohli’s fascination with the divine feminine has existed even before she became an artist. As a child it was the image of Durga that spoke to her like nothing ever could. The power vested in the image of the protector-goddess comforted her in her most lonely and distressing moments. When she started making art there was this faceless woman who began to inhabit her canvases. She was like a forest sprite who cavorted inside the network of lines that Seema created. It was a matrix that the artist had carefully laid out for her muse and spirit guide to grow and draw energy from.
With her latest show Seema has in many ways liberated this female energy from the matrix of her paintings. They have now become sculptural entities that will for the coming three months be standing in a garden behind Humayun’s tomb in Nizamuddin, Delhi. Seema’s sculpted works are in stone, wood and bronze and they have created perhaps for the first time in the national capital an unexpected shrine for the divine feminine which is especially significant coming as it does amid the noise over allowing women inside temples like Sabarimala.
The idea of grafting the yogini mythos on to her works is not a political act for Seema. It is very emphatically personal yet somehow it is happening at a time when the debate about equality is raging. Perhaps it is the yoginis who are using the artist as an instrument to make a larger point. The yogini tradition is cocoonedin considerable mystery. Much like its cousin, Tantra. Perhaps the idea was to make it accessible only to those who were truly devoted. They were, we are told by scholars and researchers, highly evolved women who stayed in groups usually at remote places away from the noise of civilization. One scholar writes about his experience with a taxi-driver in Hirapur in Odisha who dropped him a kilometre before the Chausath Yogini Temple lest a curse fall upon him. The yoginis were said to be liberated from the trappings of traditional womanhood. They were at once feared and revered. As a result, there aren’t many surviving yogini temples. Most of their naked female iconography too has been tamed or excluded from the pantheon of ‘respectable’ gods and goddesses. There are few surviving yogini shrines today. There is one in Mitauli near Gwalior that is said have been the model for our uniquely circular Parliament House,incidentally,built by two Englishmen.
Which is why Seema’s latest show called ‘A Circle of Our Own’ is an act of a silent rebellion. Because through it she has tried to channel the aesthetics of wild womanhood that have gradually disappeared with Indian society becoming more patriarchal and Brahminical. It came back, says Seema, under the Sufi and ruhani traditions of the later Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals but again disappeared under the British. HerChausath Yogini exhibit is open to the elements, which is how most yogini temples were:hypaethral or roofless where yoginis were carved on the inside of the circular wall. Unlike traditional temples where a single deity (sometimes a dyad or a triad) is sequestered in the garbh-griha, the yogini temples encircle the devotee in a sort of 360-degree darshana.
There is a yogini that Seema calls the ‘Shy Kali’. She stands under a banyan tree in the garden. Unlike the sprite of her paintings this one has a face with eyes, mouth and nose. In her hands she’s holding a sna. And under her foot is a golden sphere. From her breasts is radiating the many-armed form of another female. And her whole body is covered in relief with trees, flowers and fishes. It is a powerful image. Especially so because the artist has managed to breathe into her a powerful mythos of survival and return.
Dhiraj Singh is a well-known journalist, writer, TV personality and artist who has shown his abstract paintings and X-Ray works in India and abroad.