The Goddess of all things

Divine intervention Shakti, a painting by Seema Kohli, from the exhibition Parikrama

AT THE canvas’ centre is the goddess. All life emanates from her. The colours are vibrant yellow, red and green. The detailing is intricate, with smaller female figures dancing, praying and painting in abandon, around her. This is Shakti, a painting from Seema Kohli’s upcoming exhibition Parikrama, to be shown at the India Art Fair, 31 January to 3 February 2013.
Seema Kohli, 52, is a Delhi-based artist famous for her depiction of female strength, sexuality and divinity. Winner of the 2008 Lalit Kala Akademi National Award for Women, Parikrama is in continuation with these recurring themes. It is her interpretation of the Saptmatrikas, the seven divine mothers, the manifestation of feminine energy that created the universe. Kohli uses paintings, sculptures, a video installation and a film — It Was a Summer Afternoon— to talk about the abuse of nature, womanhood and humanity.
“The goddess and the demons embody us,” says Kohli, who spent 10 years training at the Triveni Kala Sangam, “Divinity has to come from within us to fight our demons. We are responsible for disconnecting ourselves from nature and leaving behind our tribal space. We see the violation of the environment and women as a personal right.”
In It Was a Summer Afternoon, the abused young girl wonders, “Does she feel the same? … Am I as divine as her?” She addresses nature, which has been raped like her. The film is less about the act, more about the shame in the aftermath. Kohli confesses that it took years to gather the courage to film it. Her turning point, she says, came in 2002, when she left her home and no longer found herself answerable to the family name or bound to traditional familial roles.
Writer Charty Dugdale, who wrote the concept note for Parikrama, feels that this is Kohli’s most direct engagement with rape culture. Her paintings and sculptures are more “oblique”; they use mythology to talk about social realities. However, her evocation of myths from Vedic, Sikh and other cultures attracts viewers. They are hooked by a familiar symbol and fixated by the new story it tells. Kohli makes mythology her own. For example, she sees Maya as the divine feminine. Maya becomes not just the illusion but also the creator of the illusion that gives birth to the universe. “There is no religious iconography,” says Kishore Singh, a prominent art critic. “Instead there is freedom, creativity, a personal spirituality and a certain heroism in how every woman can be a goddess.”
“Kohli’s art might not be quite fashionable in terms of trends dictated by contemporary art. She isn’t the highest selling artist. But her works move fast through the market, with a 2×2 ft canvas going for Rs 2.5 lakh and a large canvas for Rs 6 lakh. She has ready buyers,” explains critic Rahul Bhattacharya. Popular Prakashan publisher Harsh Bhatkal, a long time collector of  Kohli’s works, attributes that to the joy stemming from her art. People relate to it more than they would to highly abstract works, he says.
Kohli’s work is not about anger and hostility. Neither is it an overtly political, aggressive feminism. Her goddess is a serene and joyful embodiment of the role of the nurturer and life giver.
Parikrama will be exhibited at the India Art Fair, 31 January to 3 February 2013, New Delhi