Provocative Approach To A Spiritual Departure From Ayodhya


The absence of a place of worship can become the strongest reminder of its presence. Remains of Ayodhya, Places of Worship – artist Kota Neelima‘s series of 23 works displayed earlier this year, covers her journey and a spiritual exploration. The plurals in the title – carefully chosen. Singularity sets in – in the use of “Ayodhya”. Singularity sets in, sometimes, leaving the viewer all alone, between two directions, dimensions, identities and “views” associated with a place of worship. The “absent” place of worship. Her works take a view of God further – to say that there is no need to borrow from nature to make places of worship; to say that Nature is a place of worship in itself. The 23 works and the recurrent motifs borrowed from Nature are nowhere (visually) connected to Ayodhya, except, they are, (emotionally) in every way, for her. She reimagines Ayodhya with the idea of relocating the place of worship in the heart. Neelima reimagines a space.

Neelima’s canvas, in length and breadth, in abstract and impressionist, in changed and challenged, in tangible and intangible, is a space – filled, busy, calm and chaotic. Strokes and questions bring the chaos in her work.; questions many – for the viewer. Where is Ayodhya? Is it present? Is it absent? Could Nature be an alternative place of worship? Is the artist trying to replace Nature with structures? Is she trying to nurture a ‘room’ within Nature? Where is the structure? Where is the refuge? Is the emotional narrative balanced? Why Ayodhya? Why not Ayodhya? Why not, Ayodhya? Why cannot structure and Nature co-exist? What is free? What is bound? Where is the structure? Why is Ayodhya “absent”? Where is Ayodhya “present”? Where is the roof? Many more (questions).

Trees, moon, sun, foliage, branches, green, dry, the deep enveloping-sparkling sky. The use of yellow. The use of white. The breaking away of darkness in day, the play of light. Words under titles. More words. Words are not enough. Strokes are not enough. So, Neelima, a journalist and writer, who studied painting techniques at the Arpana Caur Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, writes and paints, weaving a broader language, since her first exhibition in 2012. Neelima says she has tried “numerous techniques” and still continues to explore. In an e-interaction, she tells Sumati Mehrishi that the ‘absent’ in Ayodhya made her analyse the space and understand it.


“Not On The Map”


Tell us about Remains of Ayodhya, Places of Worship — the idea and body of work.

Remains of Ayodhya, Places of Worship is about the spiritual journey of the human beings that is an exploration of the self and the world around us. Everyone goes through this journey because it is the nature of human mind to investigate and analyse everything around us. When we ask simple questions, like, why do only some things happen to us, or why do we face a certain destiny, the answers lead to awareness about who we are. This is the beginning of the spiritual knowledge. I have always been intrigued by this inner exploration of the human mind and I have written about it as well. My paintings are an expression of this spiritual journey.

How did you arrive at Ayodhya in your creative process?

Ayodhya is an ‘absent’ place of worship. There had been places of worship belonging to different religions on the disputed piece of land in Ayodhya, which is now vacant. This space, in a way, has been freed from structures and boundaries. It was this aspect of Ayodhya that had drawn me to its research and representation in my art.

Your brush erases the idea of permanence of a place of worship. The place of worship moves, inches into, and relocates with the changing skies and a moving planet. What is the difference between Ayodhya the present place of worship, and Ayodhya the absent place of worship?

The human mind is comfortable with the idea of permanence, (even though and perhaps) because, we all know we are transient. The spiritual experience reinforces this sense of transience of the human being in the world. The spiritual awakening makes one realise that every life is part of a larger journey and every soul is part of something universal. No place of worship built by human hands can represent the scope and dimension of this spiritual knowledge. Ayodhya had been constrained in a structure, but now it is free. Ayodhya, not as a fixed place of worship, has travelled and resided in the hearts of devotees of both religions.

 ‘Ayodhya’ becomes a point of reference in your body of work, representing the absence of reference/references that associates/associate ‘Ayodhya’ with ‘any’ place of worship. Can structures and Nature peacefully co-exist in worship and spiritual experience? 

The making of the structure, whether religion, social, political or personal, is an expression of power. A structure is made to establish ownership of a claim that could be religious, ideological, economic, political, etc. As a structure provides protection, shelter, livelihood or an identity, there will be vested interest to safeguard such a structure with laws and precedents. Nature has its own structures that need human beings to cooperate with each other, and accept the power of nature. But when human beings began to seek power over other human beings, they built structures of their own. Places of worship were also such structures.


“Sacred Windows”


Nature gives us spiritual cover, within or outside religious structures. Has a ‘place’ of worship given you that ‘room’ in Nature?

I had searched for such a place and found it in the ‘absence’ at Ayodhya. I discovered that spiritually every piece of land in this world already was a place of worship. And so was Ayodhya.

In this series, Nature replaces structures. This is a reimagining of a space. Where is ‘Ayodhya’ in trees, sky, day and night?

Every location on earth, whether a mountain or a garden, is a place of worship. God in every religion says that he/she resides in every place and within everyone. Shrines are required for man, not for God. That is what I seek to represent in my paintings through symbols of nature, like the trees, the foliage, the sky, the moon, and the sunlight.

Does the “absent” in Ayodhya deepen its spiritual experience, craving and thirst?

I believe so. The ‘absent’ in Ayodhya made me analyse the space and understand it. It raised several questions. Does something remain sacred even if it no longer is a place of worship? What is the importance of shrines in various religions? So, yes, in my case, the absence led to a re-imagination of Ayodhya.


“The Residence”


Your views on rituals and ritualistic practices:

Religious practices have great meaning for a lot of people in this world. I respect the sentiments of other human beings. Religion is a threshold that is crossed in the spiritual journey. However, it is not necessary that we stop at this threshold and think that we have reached our destination. There is need to look beyond rituals and religious practices. We must look at their motive and purpose.

Is painting a ritual (for you)? 

Painting is a journey for me. I travel with the thought that wants to be represented in colour and I reach the destination when the painting tells me it is completed. I do not begin or end a painting. I do not exist when I paint. Only the thought does.

The work Places to Pray depicts a leafless tree and a sky changing colours. The mind, for a moment, wants to shift to an open space, “somewhere on the moving earth and sometime under the changing sky”, as you put under the title. Have viewers told you they would still look for a refuge of a structure (for saying their prayers)? 

A place of worship need not be a shrine. It could just be a point of convergence of the mind with the universal consciousness. Every one of us has the ability to connect to everyone else in this world, because deep within, we know we are a collective and not an individual. And each one of us is always looking for such points of convergence. So yes, viewers immediately identify with my paintings, like Places to Pray, that speak about moments in a day or in a lifetime, when we become aware of our own universality.


“Prayers For Strangers”


Trees, flowers, foliage, light, and moon have been explored in detail. Were you trying to arrive at a common point in viewing these elements?

I believe the spirituality of all religions to be the same. The symbols of nature are used in all religions to depict the holy and the sacred. My paintings just take this view of God further to say that there is no need to borrow from nature to make places of worship. Nature is a place of worship in itself.

How do you paint?

I have a small and exclusive number of paintings that I make at my studio in Delhi. My painting process has three levels. First, I read and research about the concept on which I would like to paint. This takes time as I try to read all perspectives of the issue. Then, I sketch extensively on the thoughts from my research. My sketches are mainly charcoal on paper. One of the sketches on each topic eventually gets made as a painting. I make at least eight to ten sketches before painting.

Do you paint in the open — outside the studio?

I paint indoors. As I paint in Delhi, I find that the dust and pollution interferes with the oil colours.

How are writing and painting different? 

Writing is painting with language; painting is writing with colours. To me, it is immersion in an idea, a thought.

How does light connect you with space and spirituality?

Light is the final destination: “Tamasoma jyotirgamaya“. We always seek light and our life is a constant journey towards illumination of the mind.

What are you reading right now?

I have returned to reading Indian Philosophy by Dr S. Radhakrishnan, a seminal work on the Indian traditions of spiritual exploration.

A work of art you recently saw.

The idol of Sri Varaha in Tirumala. It makes one contemplate on creation and our place in this timeless churning of the Universe.



Kota Neelima: “I respect the sentiments of other human beings.”