Essay by Prof (Dr.) Seema Bawa

Transcending the Visible

The show What the Eye Can See is a continuation of the ideational process that began with First Cause,1 where the artist was exploring the impact of the act of Creation on the Creator herself, whether action, karma, doing something itself leaves an impression on the soul. Kota Neelima once again initiates an interrogation of presumptions and assumptions in inherited ideas predicated against the primordial dichotomy between being and imaginative consciousness that underlies attempts to grapple with the un-manifest. An inexpressible “opaque in objects” that remains untouched by any act of predication artistic or otherwise.

The artist’s world cannot exist without the grammar of her art. It is an interpreted mediated world where the trio of the artist, her painterly grammar and the world she seeks to depict appear as co-primoridialities. However, if this world is constituted by the tyranny of sight and not the vision of the “seer” that guides or lies beneath the sight, then the world depicted is contextual and thus insubstantial. Instead if this language or grammar is denuded and the perceived banishes the perceiver that is the object or being usurps the consciousness, the predication is no longer done by the artist/seer instead they are done for her. The inadequacy of inherited grammar or language becomes apparent and she awaits a new “revelation”; she is led to the untouched creative abyss within. As Rainer von Maria Rilke says “The only journey is the one within”. The mystic would plunge into this abyss and the artists steal the living fire therefrom to incarnadine the familiar objects or inherited painterly images with this fire.

Aum! By whom driven does the mind set forth fall? At whose decree does the first breath go forth out on its way? Stirred by whom is the word they utter? And who is the Deva that guides the eye and the ear?

The first verse from Kena Upanishad above hints towards the logos, origin or the First Cause. Clearly the subjective human self is not what impels the first breath or that which underlies the eye and ear. The knower has no being or self except in relation to, as the constitutive other, of the known. It knows all, but paradoxically, does not know it knows. If every Cause has an effect then what was the Effect of the First Cause on the Creator and Creation both. Such questions constantly arise in the artist’s mind. We are saying that Creation is an Absolute. If we debate anything about Creation itself the only way of doing is through the process, the act, the phenomenon of Seeing as a seer (and not ‘eye’ dealísing it) not just through the sensory alone which reveal the interpreted world; but through submitting to the phenomena here, as Heidegger would say, the new predication would peel through the layers. The first Gateway to knowing, according to Neelima, is sensation of the world, the eye and ear reveal these as the interpreted world. The word and the specular/ sound merge to form the precept which is sought to be transcended for the un-manifest, its absolute complete diversity, and the wholeness of Creation. The artist had halted her quest in the last series at this point, 2 but seeks, in the current works, to go beyond this gateway, beyond the visible, to discover that which is invisible.

For her at what point we stop searching for meanings, messages, images is our choice, because the search is endless, one has to transcend the limitations of form, of visual language of colour to transcend each layer of knowing and push towards the un-manifest.

The artist is aware of the inherent contradiction in trying to express what lies beyond the visible through the recognizable and familiar visual grammar, but still she invites the viewer to embark on a journey in which ‘the eye is not the limiting factor’. Because for her Reality cannot be known by the eye but by thought (not inherited thinking but the mood Befindlichkeit). Impelled by this cognitive but passive mind the eye can see much more, register more and that is why the series is called What the Eyes Can See. The seeing is limited, not just ways of seeing based on the language games or forms of life one belongs to which would include as many ways of seeing as one could, living through our own frame of reference; but seeing instead as the mystic or seer did the unpredicted otherness in the object, the un-manifest. These paintings are the spatialization of temporality and seek to depict the un-manifest as if in pre-temporal or eternal simultaneousness.

In the painting, Nights of Tomorrow, she has tried to retrieve the pre-experience and knowledge of what happened to us in other times, at those times when the moon was in its different phases. We have a memory of these, a deeply felt knowledge of these, the experience of it, which we can penetrate if only we allow ourselves to enter these nights of possibilities.

In another work, The Separation of Self, the artist strives to separate herself as someone who is going to make the image from the choice of the image itself. The fundamental question of whether the Creator can be distinguished from the Creation, can there be a self-willed indifference’ towards the image being created. She tries to move beyond not just the tyranny of form but also the tyranny of sight and thought. While our whole body of knowledge encourages us to look beyond the known, yet we are limited by our lives, our body-selves and this distance between the knowledge of the potential of the unknown leads to the inherent dissatisfaction, more we know, more the universe moves its epistemological boundaries. To see the world in its entirety, unmediated, is a gift or boon that Krishna vouchsafes Arjuna in the eighth adhyaya of Gita when he appears in his Vishvarupa form, and says that he would give Arjuna eyes so he could perceive the entirety of the universe embodied in the World Encompassing form of Vishnu. This Vishvarupa, according Neelima, is always around us, with all its processes constantly unfolding, but it is we who are not able to see it as a Whole because of the limitations of what the eye can see.

The fundamental question articulated in the Kena Upnishad as to ‘What makes the eyes see? What makes the mind’ think is revisited? This beautiful doubt, this curiosity is both Sensory and Spiritual. This wondrous feeling of looking for the world beyond has been explored through her paintings that impel us to look at the world around by constantly invoking our past and future journeys, our relationships, the sources of knowledge. Like the moon our mind also journeys, it starts from the roots, it moves to the sky and yet remains still.

Hypothetically the colour blue represents freedom, of the sky, of the waters, of transparency. But for freedom to exist there must be an antithetical state of unfreedom, and different degrees of liberty, at various point of time, which have been represented through mottled blue while red is Unfreedom. In the work Freedom Sky the vast limitless skies are constantly searching for the elusive moments of complete freedom where one can experience the golden ecstasy of true happiness, but the search is always as fragmented as the tree in the painting. The flowers are individuals, coming out of an undefined whole of community like the tree, that can think and produce infinite searches.

The cyclical structure of the painting What the Eyes Can See emphasises the idea that the root will eventually be a flower and then return to being a seed and then a plant with root. And yet in each returning it will be a different being; there is a constant churning of forms that can be seen in the branches. The circular nature of existence is being challenged though the incompleteness of the circle; the broken twigs, branches, roots, all point towards inconsistencies that are part of the whole, purna vidam. The two moons, the two circles, also have a circular path in a circular movement, where the rising moon embodied human agency that through work, curiosity, alters the being itself and it is in this doing that the possibility of immortality is born, when doing can become one with the creation, and can turn green. By the time the moon sets, it turns red, and changes, becomes mortal. The elemental colours as well its tonalities play an important role in paintings as they represent thoughts and ideas, where green and red stand for creation, while black signifies ends and returns.

Nachiketa, (he who does not know anything) says of this cyclical vision that “Like corn will become ripe the mortal man, and like corn he is born again”. Thus the human agent will never come to be, never accomplish the grade of being even after his perishing. For like corn, man is reborn to be food or to be consumed, that is, being for others, live for others. Modernity and post-modernity posit instead a world view as one where contextuality and ambiguity rather than the human subject form the ground, basis or “first cause”. The Nachiketas, and the rooted artists like Neelima can find no solace in the free play of signs celebrated by the followers of Derrida.

Thus Leaves of White suggest the complicity of leaves in the death of those leaves that did not survive and live on. The painting questions the notion of innocence of nature, and our knowledge that in nature survival is at the cost to other’s death, a knowledge that is embodied in the white, textured leaves. The sense of past knowledge, memory, traces in what we see/know/feel today is a refrain that runs through many of the works, the circle dissolving and reforming behind sense phenomenon, like constant journeys. In these journeys one searches for happiness, personal and collective, for an elusive moment of freedom as can be seen in Personal Blue. These memories may not be as personal as we could like to believe but the created world contains the recollections of all around us, those who have been witnesses to the creative processes, all of which contribute to our becoming from being.

The idea of witness or sakshi is very important to the Indian tradition, where every act to be acknowledged as having taken place needs a witness. In the absence of human agency, Agni and Bhumi, Fire and Earth, become witness of karma and enlightenment as they are considered to be immortal and therefore agents of the ages or yugas. In a series of four of vertical paintings Neelima, inspired by Vedic-Upanishadic philosophic tradition, explores different experiences, thoughts, journeys, stages in life, morality and immorality, karma that may be actualized by the sakshis of time and space.

A motif that recurs in her work is that of birds, a motif which she contests as a symbol of freedom. She asserts the bird is limited by the horizon, gravity, by its need to return to earth for food, to build its nests, to rest…it cannot fly forever. So a bird flying indeed reinforces in every flight the notion that it is indeed not free, and is bound within the terrains of affection, karma and knowing, all of which are conditional and conditioned.

Kota Neelima has taken recourse to familiar forms from nature, be it trees, stars, moon, or birds to express very complex and abstract ideas, perhaps because these are complex ideas that need to have a vocabulary of known forms that suggest but do not impose. All through her work she questions the sensory, the knowledge derived from the senses and tries to move beyond; for example though as humans when we see a neem tree we do not see the roots but we know they are there, they are implicit in the image of the tree. The show is an intensely introspective experience not only for the artist but also the viewer.


  • The artist’s last series of paintings was called First Cause and constituted her fourth solo exhibition held in 2012, New Delhi.
  • Maybe this is the first karma, Of the Absolute the Light, first fate, first cut, first part Of the last act, the Night. (From the theme of First Cause, Kota Neelima, 2012).

Prof. Seema Bawa is Professor of Department of History, Delhi University, specializing in the History of Art and Culture. She has lectured extensively in India and abroad on Indian art, architecture and iconography including Institute of Archaeology, the National Museum, India Habitat Centre, Seminar für Orientalische Kunstgeschichte. She writes on contemporary Indian art and culture for national newspapers, specialized journals and magazines. She was the recipient of DAAD Fellowship to read at the University of Bonn. She has published two books Religion and Art of the Chamba and Gods, Men and Women: Gender and Sexuality in Early Indian Art. She has edited AR Times and has curated shows including the Decorated Cow: Sidharth and Shatadru: Feminine Sensibilities in Indian art for Lalit Kala Akademi.