Book cover Hence (Un) Proven
Sonia Mehra Chawla in conversation with Aparna Uppaluri

Khoj’s location and its influence on your enquiry

Khoj’s location in Delhi (India) has been a key driver of this body of work (The Salt Lab) and an important influence on my practice in general. In my opinion, local dynamics are worth worrying about, and localities can make a difference.

Many of the individual phenomena that underlie environmental processes such as population dynamics, economic activities and resource use, arise at a local scale. For instance, let’s look at the issue of climate refugees that is creating simmering tensions at the local level. Despite internal displacement being the starting point of many onward journeys, it has been overshadowed by the current global focus on refugees and migrants. We need to acknowledge that, without the right kind of support and protection, a climate refugee, a person internally displaced today may become a refugee, an asylum seeker or an international migrant tomorrow. Again, if I look at my research on agriculture, climate change and salinity, and because salinity tolerance in plants is a multigenic trait, (which means that a single gene cannot confer the ability to be saline tolerant) there isn’t a single answer to the problem. The key idea then, is to raise a crop for locale specific as well as regional areas, which would provide locale specific answers to global changes in climate. As a cultural practitioner and researcher, I feel that it is imperative for me to consider how local places contribute to global changes, what drives those changes, how do these contributions change over time, how and where scale matters, what are the interactions between macro-structures and micro-agencies, and how efforts at mitigation and adaptation can be locally initiated and adopted. These are also some of the vital questions that I was encouraged to address, probe and analyse through my research and through the Art+Science project at Khoj.

Khoj’s role in influencing or shaping your own Art/Science paradigm

The third edition of Khoj Art+Science had a slightly different model and programme structure. An International Grant was initiated by Khoj and supported by The Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance entailing a six month research and development period that culminated into a four-week residency and Open Studio at Khoj Studios in spring 2018.

The four studios became essential incubation spaces for interaction, and the development of the residency as an incubator for breakthrough notions, that promotes the sharing of thoughts, and encourages the cross pollination of ideas, while expanding the networks. It is essential to explore potential ideas and outcomes from bringing thinkers and practitioners together.

I feel I have gained immensely from being a local artist (Delhi based) in an International residency at Khoj. This has allowed me (as a thinker and creator) to question assumptions about my artistic product and process in ways that working with one's immediate peers may not. In addition, I feel that Khoj has often encouraged and supported projects that have the potential to allow the public to learn alongside artists, scientists and technologists doing thought-provoking work. This residency has encouraged me to think in diverse, yet essential ways about the intersections of art and science in the public domain and how both artists and scientists can come together in collaborations that can benefit the public.

Facilitating collectives and collaborations

My work over the past few years has often been a result of sustained collaborations with Scientific Institutions, Research Institutions, Non Profit and Non-Governmental Organizations and Trusts in India, as well as interactions with fishing communities, farming and agricultural communities, ethnic and indigenous people, and tribal communities of rural and semi-urban regions of India.

The third edition of ‘The Undivided Mind’ was supported by the Wellcome Trust/ DBT India Alliance, and Dr Sarah Iqbal was helpful in facilitating interactions and connections with the Wellcome Trust scholars, experts and scientists across India for the research phase of my project. I think I benefited immensely from interactions with Dr Anura Kurpad and Dr Banalata Sen. In addition, I collaborated with MSSRF India for this project, and am very grateful for sustained interactions with Dr. Prof. M S Swaminathan, Dr Selvam and Dr Gayatri Venkataraman. These exchanges have played a vital role in shaping my current body of works, and will continue to shape and influence my practice and understanding of the Art/Science paradigm in diverse ways.

Choosing focus areas and the urgency of the contemporary moment

My artistic investigations traverse notions of selfhood, nature, ecology, conservation and sustainability and I often find myself questioning, dissecting and re-imagining spaces that exist at the interface between art and science, nature and culture, production and perception, self and the other.

The current and ongoing phase of my practice marks a close engagement with the present and future of India’s agriculture (which has been declining at a devastating rate since the 1990s), with a focus on the impacts of climate change and salinity on rice ecosystems in coastal regions. This includes research on both indigenous and transgenic rice in India, climate adaptation and mitigation, food and nutrition security. Essentially, fragility resulting from adverse environmental conditions linked to climate change, fundamentally alters the linkages between agriculture and nutrition outcomes. When margins are slender, vulnerability to adverse climate is magnified. Sometimes this is a chronic and steadily worsening process that encourages migration with its own consequences, or even worse consequences with catastrophic climate events. Food shocks are a part of this.

Through my work I hope to explore the relationship between the presented history and the contemporary moment and address such questions as: What does the current prominence of these works say about this moment in India’s history and society? How do the struggles of the past resonate with the protests of the present? Do these works represent a watershed year in the representation of the nation’s history and culture? If so, what is the larger significance of these works and this historical moment? I am glad that Khoj, through its various Art+Science ‘focus areas’, interventions and phases, has started to look more intensely at larger and inherently complex debates around ecology, the environment, health and food.

Material and discursive possibilities in contemporary art framing of Art/Science

The idea of just asking a question through an altered lens is so imperative. While working, I sensed a large gap between the scientific and cultural worlds. I feel that more often than not, scientific data is inaccessible and absent from our daily culture, and the general public. The science community faces the challenging task of communicating and relaying scientific outcomes to policy makers, stakeholders, and other non-scientific communities who can pursue policies and actions based on the information.

I think both scientists and artists are qualified and proficient at looking for the unexpected and the unforeseen. That is an exclusive and exceptional shared skill each brings to the problem-solving experience. Visual art has the power to spark dialogues, to envision ideas, to make the intangible tangible, to introduce and inject the issues into our mainstream culture. I think the significant question is, how can artists and scientists come together in collaborations that will benefit all players, including the public? We find common ground as we acknowledge the importance of ethically engaging the public in critical, yet empowering dialogues and exchanges. When both artists and scientists take a moment to step back from their disciplinary niches, they can realize and appreciate many approaches to understanding and unfolding our human experience.

Pushing boundaries

I understand that while some Art+Science projects are purely experimental and short-lived exercises, there are others that are built on long term associations, engagements and processes. It could be valuable then for Khoj to think about and focus on the longevity of some of the projects. Some relevant projects may be extended and allowed to ‘grow’ and ‘sustain’. This kind of longstanding engagement could benefit all players, the artists, the scientific community, Khoj, the supporting Institutions, as well as the public. Therefore, a residency model and programme that offers both short and long-term opportunities for research, development and production of work, could be considered.


Looking back over 10 years of Art and Science programmes at Khoj, the latest publication Hence (un)Proven pulls together talk transcripts, interviews, critical writing and artist concept notes. The first in a series of publications, this book has been edited by Aparna Uppaluri and assistant edited by Mila Samdub.

Published in 2018 by Khoj International Artists’ Association, India. The publication of this book has been supported by Wellcome Trust UK / DBT India Alliance.

Featured artists/Artist collectives:

Ackroyd and Harvey
Brandon Ballengee
Sonia Mehra Chawla
Abhishek Hazra,
City as a Spaceship
Alexy Buldakov
Rohini Devasher
Neha Chowksi
Darya Wagner & Puneet Kishor
Navin Thomas
The Kalpana

Critical Writing:

Aparna Uppaluri (Editor)
Milind Sohoni
Ashis Nandy
Anil Ananthaswami
Sanil V
Bishnu Mohapatra

© sonia mehra chawla