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Swayamsiddha – The Self-Realized (Seema Kohli’s Show)

Lalit Kala Akademi
28th April – 4th May 2009

Without beginning or ending,
Your original wisdom has been
Shining forever, like the sun.
To know whether or not this is true,
Look inside your own mind.

Whenever we think of modernism in Indian art, two icons appear – first the Travancore Prince of Kerala, Raja Ravi Varma and the tempestuously beautiful the talented, Amrita Shergil. Between the two of them one male and one female, a perfect complementality in the arts become apparent. Raja Ravi Varma started portraiture durbar art and introduced the technique of oil on canvas and easel painting, in Indian art, Amrita Shergil with her move from France to India bought in the academic realism of the West to the India Art Palette.

For generations Indian women have been ‘artists’. Nowhere is it more evident than in the ‘little’ tradition. The women have been weaving and crafting their dreams in materials which are an inherent part of their culture. Women have always been creators in both private and public spaces. Medical research defines the creative aspect of the brain as the feminine side. Within the geography of artistic production, the creative feminine has a powerful and evocative canvas.

Starting from the 1970’s, the subcontinent has been witnessing extremely significant changes with regard to the emergence of women artists as a self-conscious group, differences that are inherently different from those of their male counterparts, specially when it comes to transcending the different obstacles – political and otherwise – that separate their respective countries, in this case India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Despite the fact that several of these women artists do not consider themselves to be feminists, there seems to be a general consensus that their experience in a patriarchally structured world is essentially distinct from that of men – which is to say that the ambitions, limitations and anxieties faced, as a group, by women artists of the subcontinent are linked by common discriminations that they face in socio-cultural contexts vis-à-vis men.

The 70s, in fact, were years that serve as a crucial landmark in the emergence of this sensibility that was honed by many factors, two of the most important of which were the impact of western education and the fervour of Indian nationalism. As women artists awakened to this new consciousness, they began expressing themselves in hitherto unexplored ways, subverting the existing images of the ‘Woman’ that saw her in the dichotomous mould of the nurturer or the destroyer; the virgin or the vamp, while rejecting all notions of her as acomplex synthesis of various qualities and emotions. Another brave beginning made during this time was that women artists now began examining their sexuality and expressing their perceptions in new and unique portrayals.

In the years following Independence, a number of female artists, such as Shanu Lahiri, Kamala Roy Chowdhury, Kamala Das Gupta and Amina Ahmad sought to experiment with new methodologies and create professional niches for themselves and had become a visible presence in art colleges by the 1950s. However, this was not without having to face severe resistance. When Kamala Roy Chowdhry held an exhibition of her nude drawings in Calcutta in the 1950s, for instance, a hostile press described her as a threat to public morals. Nevertheless, the women pioneers continued in their journeys and, with time, several important artists like Meera Mukherjee who trained in Calcutta and Germany, Nasreen Mohamedi who trained in St Martin’s, London, Veena Bhargava in Calcutta, Anjolie Ela Menon from J. J. School of Arts in Bombay and the Ecole des Beaux Arts Paris, and Arpita Singh in Delhi, to mention just a few, surged ahead creating new visual vocabularies as they moved forward.

Traditionally, however, artists in India belonged to the artisanal class. Practitioners of other trades, they were educated in traditional religious texts and then trained to inscribe manuscripts with illustrations drawn from or inspired by these texts. As per much research done in the area, the possibility that women were the carriers of this knowledge is quite strong and it is generally believed that it was through them that closely guarded secrets were passed down from generation to generation, persevering and perpetuating the traditional art forms and techniques.

Women like Bhaktian Jindan from Mewar are convincing pointers to the linkages and continuums that run between women artists now and those before them. According to Tryna Lyons, there is clear evidence of women painters of artist families painting ‘sceneries’ in the temple town of Nathdwara in Rajasthan, a tradition that they shared with men and which goes back to the early decades of the twentieth century, perhaps even earlier.

Unfortunately, the histories of women artists in artisanal practice remain frustratingly elusive. What is known is that with a decline in patronage, the increasing influence of the West and its mechanical processes of production, the popularity of photography and the importation of chemical inks and dyes, Indian artists in all traditional forms of creative expression such as painting, weaving, embroidery, printing, etc. were affected adversely. The old ways of story-telling and passing down myths in oral traditions and through other manifestations such as wall paintings, all started gradually declining until some of them were revived in the twentieth century.

The interdisciplinary aspects of a traditional Indian artist saw my grandmother making icons of worship with easily found material from earthy pigments to gold dust. Seema Kohli is very much at home in the domain of the creative feminine principle of artistic production. In the history of modern Indian art, there has been an unbroken tradition in painting in particular. Seema Kohli is a significant voice in the challenging dynamic space interrogating tradition and modernity.

Her fascination with colours in her paintings goes back a long way and has always been intrigued by the cosmic cycle of life and the powers that be. Her oeuvres are a manifestation of all that is around, from creation to procreation, and to the final liberation. Her creative expression is channelized through the emblematic figures, and therein unfolds the story of the Cosmos.

Seema’s visual language finds resonance in folk, tribal, Tantra, nature and environment, Sufi and European Art joining Philosophy. Seema takes the trajectory of myths, metaphors and autobiography. The philosophical concerns of creation, procreation and dissolution is the backbone of her conceptuality.

Dr. Alka Pande


Marigold or Mary’s Gold
A Tribute to Apparent Contradictions (Gabriella Montanari’s Show)

Visual Arts Gallery
21st – 30th April 2009

Satyam, Shivam, Sunadaram 
That which is true, is good, is beautiful

India — a cradle, a continent, a culture… a medley of thousands of colours and millions of flavours. India, an idea. For five thousand years, this rich land has nurtured civilization. Silently, poised she has stood by the many moods of time and nature. She has been a bearer, welcoming people from lands near and far, of colours dark and light. Whoever comes revels in her fragrances and is immersed in her rhythms and lyrics. Where conquerors dug swords in her earth, she blossomed flowers and vines. Her riches, ancient practices and wisdom have brought utterance to many a wandering soul.

Where earth is the mother, the feminine principle; where the riverines are the nadi or channels through which flows life force, where the chakra (wheel) of time precipitates beyond the narrow walls of habit or reason… there breathes India. She has no beginning or end. In the history of civilization, India has always absorbed influences that came her way, that were thrust on her. She sheltered them and nurtured them, infusing her unique flavours to make new forms out of them. She has never stopped to flow.

Her majestic mountains, the kulaparvatas or the ‘sublime summits, have inspired the people of India as towers of dignity and majesty. The snow-clad Himalayas in the north are the ‘roof of the world’ protecting India’s rich plains from invaders as a fortress-like barrier; making the people of India a single great family.

Likewise, rivers in India have been greatly revered. They are considered holy in India. The most honoured is the Ganga, the celestial river. She flows down from heaven, from the feet of Vishnu, the preserver from the trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh. As she flows through the Himalayas, the abode of Shiva, she is given course and her rage is reduced. This translates into the belief that the Ganga flows through the matted tresses of Shiva, where her ferocity is controlled. There are other rivers worshipped as sanct: the Saraswati, Yamuna, Godavari, Kaveri and Narmada. Worshipping them has special importance for the Indian devotee as the atmosphere on the banks of a river is gangayam ghosah or ‘the village on the river’; the microcosm of the universe in a cool and pure environment.

From the days of the Indus valley civilization that sprang on the banks of the Sindhu, the river in India has been thought as a loving mother, who nurtures her people with an abundance of water and insures fertility and prosperity just like the bodily mother, feeds her milk, the life-supporting nectar to her young ones.

Many moods, many flows characterize the experience called India. The only order in here is her chaos. One can resist it, but before long one is swept by her many colours, by her disorder — as though the mischief of Holi, the festival of colours, is a perennial given on this land. Pleasant, engrossing and inviting. It is said to know India one has to forget whatever ‘knowing’ means. A veritable feast awaits in this chaos. Numerous language, dialects, fabrics, foods, customs, practices, beliefs, patterns of living… India is plurality personified. And with every passing moment this plurality only multiplies. India is a seat of hybridity, where tradition encounters modernity, where cultures fuse into newer ones, where identities span moments of time that do not progress along a simple, straight line; where progress itself is more than the sum of advancement.

One can stand by the cool banks of the Ganga, but to experience her ferocity one has to dive in her waters, fall from her rapids and float on her soothing waves before she merges in the ocean. If a word could capture the experience of India, it would unequivocally be beautiful. But in India beauty is more than the sum of appearances. In fact beauty is beyond form or measure.

For centuries, it has been a living experience for the peoples of this land. A diverse and scenic landscape, ancient cities and remains, a panorama of art heritage and a wealth of mystical and spiritual sources of gyana (knowledge) have endowed India’s inhabitants with an appreciation that is far removed from form or physical attributes of the object of sensation. The dancing girl from Harappa, the meditating Buddha from Gandhara, Hussain’s seductive Gaja Gamini — these aren’t merely icons of different eras… they are moments of timeless celebration, of a deep splendour and magnificence frozen in a form. They encapsulate the melding of the seer, the seen and the maker.

Aesthetic experience in this ancient land is profound and extremely subtle. At its purest, most innocent, it is samarpan (surrender) and it traverses the journey from rupa (form) to arupa (formless).

Within this Oriental geography Gabriella Montanari moved from an Occidental terrain gabriellefour years ago. Like many a visitor she too was seduced by the sensuality of the land, the colours, the spirituality, the moods , and the plethora of materials which simply put wings into her creative expression.

Trained in the purity of the Italian Academy of fine art Gabriella with her sensitivity of spirit enters the domain of truth and beauty of India and empowers her singular voice with a potent fecundity.

Dr. Alka Pande
Spring 2009


Two Birds

Recent works by Siri Devi Khandavilli

At Home in the World
The concept of video art borrows from musician Brian Eno’s idea of ambient music in works. As quoted: “It must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”

If the new task of the moving image is to transmit the magic of dreams, then the spectacle of video is as important as its ability to communicate.  By implementing the new high resolution of plasma screens and digital video, one links video at to an earlier purveyor of dreams, to the High Renaissance. In the themes of painting, there has been production of a series of videos that deliberately aspire to the condition of painting in their hyperrealist crispness.

US based Siri Khandavilli makes her videos in a painterly and poetic style. Her avant-garde use of concentrated colors, space, scale combine to create a mesmerizing effect. Her videos like her images of art works bring to focus the daily objects in her environment, providing a humanistic approach with a touch of spontaneity. The mundane, the everyday, the existentialist angst of people integral to Siri’s life are captured.

The show ‘Two Birds’ speak of a clear influence from Indian traditional painting and a love for tribal arts by her way of incorporating the motifs and colours and fine lines. Training in Mysore traditional painting and studying further at Chitrakala Parishath, Bangalore has given Siri Devi a strong foundation to merge the traditional with the technological that she has experienced after living and working in Arizona.

Video art, which actually found endorsement in the autumn of 1965, is named after the videotape that was most commonly used in the form’s early years. Nam June Paik being the first to use this form of art and also becoming the author of the phrase “Information Superhighway”. Artists before that had already been working on film and with changes in technology, it gave way to digitally rendering environments that responded to the movements of the viewer or other elements and allowing control of video in installations from the World Wide Web or from remote locations.

As the 90s approached, artists played down video’s traditional role as a medium of witness and concentrated on its power to invoke an atmosphere, suggesting a state of mind and stir the emotions.  The individual subjectivity, their tele-visual dreams and hallucinations gave a platform with the high-resolution screens and large-scale digital projections. In this respect, video art clearly shares with the mainstream a desire to transport its audiences with visual culture. In this post-mesmeric age saturated with extreme imagery, it is now a painless task to enthrall an audience.

The digital video “revolution” gave way to an extensive access to a technology of sophisticated editing and control, which allowed many artists to work with video and to create interactive installations based on such video projections.

Interest in video art in India in the 90s emerged at the time set against the turbulent backdrop of increased economic engagement with the global economy. Artists such as Nalini Malini, Vivan Sundaram, Subba Ghosh, Tejal Shah to name a few used video as a means to gain international exposure, exploring the tensions of contemporary culture and society. Most of them coming from metropolitan cities and being trained in Australia, Europe or the US got a chance to exhibit in specialized galleries.

In the cultural diversity of India, where tradition and modernity work hand in hand, technology has become an important tool of artistic production. While I do not subscribe to putting either labels or gender in creative production, facts do point in the hegemony of women in video art in India.

And Siri Khandivilli is one of the Indian voices producing singular videos in the United States. Lime many Indians in a globalised world, she is at home in the world.


“To discuss what one is doing rather than the artwork which results, to attempt to unravel the loops of creative activity..leads to a consideration of our total relationship to a work of art, in which physical moves may lead to conceptual moves, in which behavior relates to ideas.”

– Roy Ascott in “The Construction of Change”

Dr Alka Pande
Winter 2009


Colour Handbook Book Launch

Indian Art, The New International Sensation, Brazilian Embassy, 8th April 2009