Watching the art of Seema Kohli is like a walkthrough of the pictorial Jataka tales of Ajanta caves, defined by the intricacy, rich hues, storytelling and imbued with a deeply spiritual flavour. Over 200 of her artworks are currently being exhibited in the Museum of Sacred Art (MOSA) in Belgium in a six-month-long show.
Titled ‘The Celestial Revelations’, the extensive exhibition opened in the European country on June 15. It shows the vast oeuvre of Kohli — who works out of her studio in Delhi’s Rajinder Nagar locality — collected by the museum over seven years.
Known for using golden and silver leaves on her canvases, the highly-collected artist paints celestial beings, floating forms and meditating feminine figures surrounded by natural and celestial motifs. Delving into the origins of her work, 1960-born Kohli says that right from her childhood, she was in an atmosphere congenial to spirituality.
“It was not possible to be away from it (spirituality). The whole ambiance was charged with questions, even of death. My mother’s grandmother passed away, we were taken to the cremation as 2-3-year olds. We were told that from today, ‘chaiji’ is not there. She has gone, it’s only the body which we’re going to cremate. It was all logically explained,” the 2008 Lalit Kala Akademi award recipient told IANS.
Growing up only led to deeper questions and contemplation, causing thoughts of giving everything up. “When I was 18, I thought renunciation is the path. I wanted to leave everything and move on. I went to my family guru in Haridwar, but my father got me back.
“As you grow, you realize that wherever you are, you make a difference. If I just made a spiritual enquiry in the usual way, I would’ve lost a lot. I continued with my artistic journey in a much better way than what I would’ve been able to in the form of a renunciate,” she said.
One of India’s most visible contemporary artists on the world stage, Kohli’s thematic engagements also include that of ‘Hiranyagarbha’ or the golden womb, which celebrates the feminine and procreation. Despite layering her paintings with spirituality, the multi-arts practitioner — she paints, sculpts and makes prints — sees spirituality as transcendent of religion.
“As an Indian, you don’t see just one thing but many. You’re thrown open to the beauty of it. Everything starts from the faith, then a belief consolidates into a religion. I am very open to other faiths and philosophies. I see spirituality as transcendent of religion. Because of the family I was born in, it was much easier to understand other religions,” she explains, her hands on a table strewn with many colours.
Her works will also be exhibited at the India pavilion of the Jerusalem Biennale in Delhi in October this year.