Born of Watery Realms and Fusing Cells;

a few thoughts on the transformative experience of the biological imperative

Sonia Mehra Chawla quotes Jaishankar:

As if from a lake
I surface for air,
mirrors and ripples embracing me
through layers of sleep.
I greet the chilly dawn,
newly-born each morning,
cracking through the fragile eggshell air.

Botticelli's Venus is brought to mind, born from the lake, her nakedness partially concealed behind long golden hair, looking back at the viewer as we gaze upon her alabaster form of which we are afforded an endless glimpse as angels blow away the drape that another woman is rushing forward with which to cover Venus' modesty. How different is the woman in Sonia's Metamorphosing Female: PURGE, to which these lines refer. Sonia's women also emerge from water, they too are 'newly-born' and they too are self-aware, of their newness, their femininity and the condition of being observed. Yet her women are inward looking, their eyes shut and focused on their own being not 'their-being-as-that-which-is formed-only-in relation-to-the-others-gaze'. Thus they are beings in the universe, i.e. like everything else, formed by a multiplicity of single cells not because they are observed, brought to sight.

The graphic patterns on the canvas are inspired by and taken from 18th and 19th century microphotogrpahs, documents and diagrammatic representations of single-celled organisms that occur in the ocean. These cross-sections seem highly complex and ornamental for such base creatures. Sonia has selected fragments from this world to reveal evolutionary mechanics and represent the upward growth of species where single celled creatures are the bottom-most and human beings at the top. And it is these types of cells that are the basis of all life, wherever they may lie on the evolutionary scale.

The process of compounded growth is central to Sonia's work as she delves for inspiration into the extremely personal and transformative experience of becoming a mother. The group of works share the title Some Roots Grow Upwards with the painting of the name of a young woman tending to her terrace garden while a fetus grows peacefully in a fleshy placenta like flower. It urges the audience to believe that while the woman in peacefully tending to her plants she is being 'fertile' in both senses of the word and as she nurtures and nourishes the plant so also she does the child to be. The flower, here the pseudo-womb is very Georgia O'Keefe and makes a correlation between the beauty and productivity in plants and humans.

If we are to consider 'roots' and thus the deleuzian structure of interconnectedness as being organic and 'un-grid-like' with a central point from which spring almost uncharted paths then in Sonia's work this would be the woman-mother-nuturer. This is articulated as such in the video installation Becoming Light. A multiplicity of women at various stages in their life - youth, maternal, middle age - have selected verses from Nandita Jaishankar's poetry to reflect and thereby transmit their essential thoughts and experiences. The woman is at the centre of love and lifecycles, growth and decay. There are also a set of small works based on the video that reinforce the feminine position.

Julia Kristeva has written that with the beginning of motherhood, which begins when a woman gets pregnant, she becomes passionate about herself. This passion for self manifests in an inward 'looking' that is a turning away from the outside stimulants of man-lover-world towards the growing fetus-baby-child. She also uses the phrase 'mystery of gestation' not as a theoretical turn but really to describe how, despite the sciences desire to know the biophysical process of birth, it remains in some part in the realm of the unknowable.

Motherhood is in some ways outside of the woman's control, she may have decided how and when and with whom to conceive but beyond that she is not the absolute master of her journey. Kristeva locates the discourse of motherhood within the discourse on the crisis of identity. Motherhood is characterized by instability, it happens to the organism not the subject (that is the 'self-aware thinking person'): it happens but I'm not there. Neither parturition nor birth are final, they are the beginnings of something other than themselves - the onset of maternity for the mother and the beginning of life for the child. With maternity is the loss of autonomy. The journey is one that begin with extreme narcissism conditioned by the pure physicality of pregnancy and transforms to extreme 'sacrifice' (the child becomes the supreme being for the mother). And thus it may be something both desired and despised (this latter experience is almost always hidden, unspoken, unacceptable).

It is this latter unspoken, almost unimaginable (I speak from first hand experience of being a recent mother as well) that allows me to view the Transient Hyperbloom series as quite complicated, the petals, algae, coral patterning evokes ideas of decay in its application on the facial skin. One or two in particular with their scaled faces surrounded by serpentine strands of hair remind me of Medusa. The myth of Medusa has her born of the ancient marine deities, siblings Porcys and Ceto. She was envisaged as beautiful and terrifying, Ovid described her as once a ravishingly beautiful woman who incurred the wrath of Athena when she lay in her temple with Poseidon, god of the sea and in punishment the goddess turned her hair into serpents and her face so terrible that onlookers were converted to stone. The water theme abides as does the transformative experience brought on by 'lying with a man': the terrible curse of feminine beauty, bodily desire and lusty copulation.


Becoming Light is Sonia's video and sound installation. In its wordy monologues, austere costumes and movements, dramatic lighting, pregnant silences and meaningful gazes it seems to me a cross between Greek tragedy (sans the Woody Allen'esque shrieking ), Rembrandt's paintings, any number of instances from the extensive visual tradition, especially European, of women as muse and the visual gestures and evocative translations of mime. It is choppy and disturbing, because in that immersive space surrounded by the three screens, multiple audios and populated by the histories, memories, stories, vulnerabilities and desires of so many unknown women the viewer becomes the one watched and observed. It forces you to confront your own anxieties but robs you of the language with which to articulate a personal narrative because the words attack you, enter you and take over your own voice. What does it feel like, to have no voice? Can you hear your thoughts amidst the cacophony? What does it feel like to be a vessel, a channel? What does it feel like to experience uncontrollable change? What does it feel like to be consistently human?

Deeksha Nath
March 2011

Jaishankar, N. Broken. Pyrta: A Journal of Poetry and Things, 2010
Sandro Botticelli. Birth of Venus c. 1486. Uffizi, Florence
Jaishankar, N. The Memory Bird (Shadowline, 2009)
"Affliction" in Writing Love (Rupa & Co, 2010)
"An Ode to Georgia O'Keefe" in Pyrta:A Journal of Poetry and
Things (2010).
Kristeva, J. Motherhood Today
Kristeva, "Motherhood According to Giovanni Bellini" in Desire in Language,
Oxford, 1982:237
Robbins, R. Literary Feminisms. New York, 2000: 138
Ovid, Metamorphoses c. 8 AD
I refer here to Mighty Aphrodite (2005), written and directed by Woody Allen,
a comedy of a relationship between a man and the porn-star birth mother
of his adopted son. It is inspired by Pygmalion.
© sonia mehra chawla