Imagining the universe as a womb and bringing a starfish home: Artist Seema Kohli on creating happy memories

As is common with us human beings, her mind often dwells on matters of life and death. Years ago, Seema Kohli performed at the RajRani temple in Odisha’s Bhubaneshwar, where, through monologues, she explored questions about man’s existence.

Within that temple she became the idol to “absorb, react, and reinterpret” the energies around her, encircling the temple and closing and opening the door to the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctoram), making it a visual metaphor of the journey towards heightened awareness of the divine and the self.

With her Golden Womb or Hiranya Garbha Koham series again Kohli celebrated creation, changes, even revival, her winged creatures representing the cosmic journeys of souls, her mythical creatures symbolising not just physical birth, but physiological, spiritual and ideological rebirth too.

The creative process is complicated. It involves researching themes, stories, weaving life’s lessons and connecting with one’s soul to narrate stories. Her studio on the third floor of her home in New Delhi’s Rajendar Nagar is where Kohli taps into her creative genes.

CloseAyesha BanerjeeContributor|Moneycontrol

Finding the right spot

“An artist’s work involves understanding the individual that he or she is and this is where I feel I am myself, sitting on this chair, taking key decisions about my life and work, feeling very much at peace here,” says Kohli.

She also has around 2,000 books collected during various periods in her life. “I love to read and do research for my art.” One wall has shelves crammed with paint.

The little fish pond is a unique feature here and a place of interest for the cat, Kyoshi, who is a constant presence here, waiting for the water levels to go down someday and fulfil her dream of grabbing the goldfish.

Kohli also has a small sitting area here for her clients and gallerists and for intimate gatherings of friends and acquaintances.

Table talk

It’s a house full of tables, laughs Kohli, because daughter Anshika Varma, a photographer who lives in Defence Colony and son, Svabhu Varma, an artist and illustrator, are also workaholics who give vent to their creativity whenever they visit. So there are tables in their rooms, and one in her bedroom, all close to windows for light and soothing views outdoors.

Imagining the universe as a womb and bringing a starfish home: Artist Seema Kohli on creating happy memories

Kohli’s 10 feet by 5 feet work surface is ideal for the large formats she works with, the bright splotches of colour giving tell-tale evidence of the table serving as her palette.

For her children, the house is “Mama’s adda. This is where I was born, grew up, got married, had them (children) and got divorced,” says Kohli.

The artist, who has held solo shows around the country as well as in Venice, Brussels, Melbourne, London, New York, Dubai and Singapore (she has also participated in art fairs worldwide) has filled her house with happy memories – things she and her family have collected during their travels.

Yes, she has brought back sand, pebbles, even starfish from places she does not want to forget. Other favourites include the sculpture of a torso made of wood and shells from Nigeria, which reminds her of the Golden Womb series. Then there is the image of the garuda she bought while touring cities in Myanmar in 2009. A face mask from Nepal at the entrance to the studio stares calmly back at visitors.

“Now that the children have their own homes I have shared these little objects with them too to remind them of our home. A home is a place which is in your mind. I feel these objects are a reminder to them of the love and affection that we have shared together,” says Kohli.

The evolution of the artist from the age of 16 can be traced through her art work displayed selectively around the staircase that connects all the floors of the house. “I like looking at them and find great comfort in reflecting on my journey.”

Get moving

Kohli, in her own words, is “all over the place” at home. The basement is used for accounting work, storage and her personal gym. Apart from total resistance exercises, she does weights, boxing and yoga with assistance from a personal trainer who has been with her for the last 12 years. “Most of us artists stagnate physically. We rarely move because we are so engrossed in our work. When you’re painting at times it’s difficult even to get up and pick up the new colour you want to add to the piece because you hate to break that flow,” she says.

The ground floor has an open plan kitchen under the command of a chef who has been with the family for decades, and a dining and sitting area. This space has been taken over by the “three girls”, two Labradors Luna and Tara and Kyoshi, who is the eldest of the trio and very disdainful of the overtures of the overly affectionate dogs.

The first floor has Kohli’s bedroom, TV room and a lobby, where her Tanjore paintings find pride of place. The family also gathers in the TV room to binge on movies and serials and to chat and enjoy time together.

Anshika’s bedroom is on the second floor where she stays when she visits – often with two cats. The lobby area is covered to prevent the animals from jumping off.Svabhu’s room is next to hers.

The two-level terrace above allows the artist to finish her paintings and sculptures and to enjoy her love for flowers and plants. “The top level is where I grow trees, we have guava and pomegranate and this season we grew broccoli as well as basil,” says Kohli. The compressor kept here is for colouring her sculptures. She also prepares her canvases here and does the layering with colours. Everything dries up quickly in the sun.

The Covid-19 years have spawned creativity despite the overlay of incredible sadness, when friends, family members, others lost their lives, says Kohli. But she’s also grateful for the time she got to spend with Anshika, when she moved in during the lockdowns with her partner.

And as she stands in her balcony inhaling the fragrance of the flowering madhumalati, Kohli says she has been thankful for this journey as an artist “that has unexpectedly shaped up so well.”