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The ‘yoginis’ of Sunder Nursery

Instead of a gallery, Seema Kohli will be showing her ‘yogini’ sculptures at Delhi’s Sunder Nursery

A narrative performance by Seema Kohli.
A narrative performance by Seema Kohli. (Seema Kohli)

In the heart of Delhi lies the lush expanse of Sunder Nursery, a Unesco World Heritage Site, known as Azim Bagh in the 16th century. Situated next to the majestic Humayun’s Tomb, it looks resplendent in its restored avatar, thanks to the efforts of the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative—a public-private partnership between government bodies and the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) that also roped in the people of Nizamuddin basti. And now this verdant oasis is all set to serve as the backdrop for an art exhibition.

Come Saturday, 64 sandstone yogini sculptures will cluster around a lotus pond dating back to the medieval era. These will be accompanied by etchings in zinc plates and five sculptures in wood and bronze created by Delhi-based artist Seema Kohli. With this solo exhibition, A Circle Of Our Own, curated by Shaunak Mahbubani, produced by Teamwork Arts and presented by Gallery Ragini, she hopes to create a dialogue between the contemporary and the classic within this heritage setting.

The show is true to her practice, spanning three decades, which has focused primarily on the “feminine"—both as a form and as an energy. Kohli draws references from religious iconography, literature, philosophy and the vibrant world of myths and legends to create art across three mediums—painting, sculpture and performance. Some of her earlier works, such as Celestial Revelations and Word For The World Is Home, have been shown at the Museum of Sacred Arts, Belgium, and at the Venice Biennale (2014-15), respectively. For the latest exhibition, she looks particularly at the legacy of Indic female deities, or yoginis, revered in temples created between the 7th and 12th centuries across the country. “Very few of the yoginis created within this period resemble one another. From 2012, I have been looking at original iconography and also creating my own interpretations in my work. Thirty-five of the yoginis in this show are absolutely new, untouched by earlier forms," says Kohli.

The exhibition has been in the making for some time. Kohli didn’t want to exhibit these sculptures within the confines of a white cube space. “The idea of the yogini is one of liberation. Historically, all of the yogini sites have been away from the shehar (city) or gaon (village), usually on top of the hill and near a water body," she says. At one point, she wanted to display the sculptures in a forest. The only hitch was that the works would not be accessible to many. She even thought of showing the works at the Ridge in Delhi. “But I couldn’t find a spot where the sculptures could be shown together. I didn’t want to separate them as I see them as collaborators, close friends working together," explains Kohli.

That’s when Sanjoy Roy of Teamwork Arts suggested she give Sunder Nursery a try. And things started falling into place once she spoke to Ratish Nanda, project head, AKDN. “He suggested, why don’t you put them around the only living Mughal-era lotus pond, located within Sunder Nursery?" she says. “Nature is feminine itself. And at Sunder Nursery, you can really see this dance of the prakriti—both within the vast expanse as well as in the wooden and bronze sculptures."

The exhibition will open with a narrative performance by Kohli, who has earlier deliberated on ideas of continuity and the sacred feminine in performance art pieces such as the Hiranyagarbha/The Golden Womb, Tree Of Life and Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. “This narrative grew within me as I worked. These are separate verses written at different points of creation of these yoginis," says Kohli, who will be collaborating with musicians from Mexico and Tehran for the 35-minute performance.

A Circle Of Our Own will be shown at Sunder Nursery from 16 November-16 February. The narrative performance will take place during the opening.

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