Published by Exhibit 320 & British Council India on the occasion of the artists' solo exhibition 'Scapelands' in 2015
In Sonia Mehra Chawla's works, the artist persona often appears as an archetypal figure mediating between the enigmas of the natural world and the experimental protocols that science devises to investigate them. Her mixed-media paintings, prints and video works assume the form of encounters between mystery and inquiry. In her 2009-2011 series, 'Some Roots Grow Upwards: The Transformative Experience of the Biological Imperative: Both Desired and Despised', for instance, the artist persona takes a nap on a couch while a dream play involving the human body, stripped to nerve, muscle and bone, unfolds around her; neural electricity links her to a ghostly X-ray double, heavy with child, and to pensive skeletons drawn from the history of anatomical representation.

Her own bodily experiences, especially of pregnancy and childbirth, provide a recurrent basis for Sonia's reflections. Incrementally, during the last decade, she has developed a vocabulary of germination and gestation, phrased in placental and foetal forms as well as protozoan and plant images. In the 2011 diptych, 'The Sea Within' and the 2013 triptych, 'Embryonic Plant', she subverts the conventional symmetries of scale and detail in a gesture reminiscent of science-fiction scenarios of miniaturization; she inserts the artist persona into a universe dominated by the gigantically enlarged forms of micro-organisms, variously honeycombed, tasselled, tangled, globular or star-shaped.

When Sonia presents us with the complex and visually exciting micro-architecture of cellular structures, of ganglia and cortices, spores, packed seed-pods and streaming plankton, she draws us into an experience of abundant and versatile aesthetic stimulation but also into a visual regime framed rigorously by the optics of microscopy, radiography and nanography. On a preliminary viewing, it may appear that the primary impulse in Sonia's practice a lyrical and expressive one, geared towards the production of tapestried images that celebrate the domain of organic forms invisible to the naked eye. Closer engagement reveals, however, that her practice is also sustained by a compelling conceptual orientation: a fascination with imaging itself, the constant translation of experience into image, as a key mode by which the human consciousness anchors itself in the world.

Sonia's receptiveness to the empirical and analytical aspects of scientific research may seem unusual in an artist educated in what is still residually a Beaux Arts visual arts curriculum in India. We must remind ourselves that, even while she was a student of painting at the Delhi College of Art, the artist socialized herself in the ethos of printmaking, putting herself through a substantial training in an art that melds the gifts of the artisan, the artist and the scientist. She served a formative period of apprenticeship with her teacher, the stellar printmaker Anupam Sud, known for her enviable mastery over diverse techniques and her emphasis on the female experience of the intimate and the public spheres. After her graduation, Sonia continued to explore printmaking at the Atelier 2221 Print and Edition Studio, founded by Pratibha and Dakoji Devraj, who were active in codifying the conventions of the graphic arts in India and making the glossary and finer points of printmaking accessible to a wider audience during the 1990s.

In India, where the still-enduring operational hierarchies of the colonial Beaux Arts system have assorted well with the apartheid psychology of caste, printmakers were until relatively recently dismissed as practitioners of a lesser art. Often stigmatized under the sign of the 'applied arts', they are supposedly contaminated by their production of editioned 'multiples' rather than a unique 'original' and by their overt emphasis on technological labour. Such prejudices are palpably absurd. Formally and in material terms, the graphic arts are perhaps the most demanding among the traditional forms of art-making. Printmaking affords its practitioner a memorable combination of sensuous delight and scientific precision, but this is a hard-won prize. More than many of her colleagues, the printmaker must cultivate a keen awareness of the moods of chemicals and the effects of substances on each other; she must calibrate, delicately, the vagaries of plate, stone, ink and print surface; she must orchestrate a series of meticulous technical manoeuvres while bearing witness to the dramaturgy of her themes.


In her ongoing project, 'Scapelands' (2014-2015), supported by a residency grant endowed by the Charles Wallace India Trust and the British Council India, Sonia carries her preoccupation with germinative and gestational energies into a robust engagement with the landscape. Instead of the micro-ecologies of the body's interior, she embraces the macro-ecologies of rivers, mangrove zones, rock formations and forests, studying them scientifically while translating them into the microcosm of the image. 'Scapelands' has also allowed her the latitude to deepen her research into the resources and possibilities of the axial element of her artistic practice, printmaking, at the London Print Studio, where she experimented with the photopolymer gravure or solarized intaglio fine art printmaking process.

"A photopolymer is a polymer that changes its properties when exposed to light, often in the ultraviolet frequency of the electromagnetic spectrum. Although photopolymers have been used in industrial processes for several years, their use in fine art printmaking is relatively recent," writes the artist. "A drawing or photographic image on transparent high-quality film is placed on the photopolymer plate and exposed to ultraviolet light in varying degrees. It is then developed and hardened at different stages before it is ready to print." [1]This process bears an affinity both to traditional engraving techniques such as aquatint, which emphasizes effects of tone rather than line, and to early photography conceived literally as 'drawing with light'. Sonia uses light-sensitive Toyobo KM73 polymer plates with a flexible steel backing, and hand-ground earth pigments as her inks to achieve a range of sepia and olive tones when the image is printed.

Fluidly combining the phases of expedition, research, documentation and meditation in 'Scapelands', Sonia moves outward into diverse terrains of the natural world and simultaneously inward into the history of artistic practice, renewing landscape as a genre. Her project title is instructive: she inverts the two elements of the genre appellation, 'landscape', generating a semantic shift. 'Landscape' announces itself as artifice, for it does not exist in nature; it is the artistic imagination's proposal of a particular way of representing or symbolizing the natural world, of transforming nature into subject. Its mirror twin, 'Scapeland', turns this relationship between subject and artifice around, making the '-scape' the focus of inquiry, engaging with the internalized aesthetic concepts and art-historical categories that form an integral part of our lifeworld. The resulting findings constitute a territory that belongs equally to the cartographer and the psychonaut, at once geographic and oneiric.

'Scapelands' is a sophisticated response to six locales: the Sundarbans in West Bengal and Pichavaram in Tamil Nadu, both mangrove estuaries that the artist has navigated; Goa and Pondicherry, where she has taken intricately commingled roots as her subject; the forests of Uttarakhand; and a riverine course in Thailand. All these landscapes are premised on the matrix of origin, a site both of nurture and hazard: 'Scapelands' gestures towards the mythology of the hidden source. Sonia taps here into a deep stratum of belief, cultural experience and artistic representation, defined by the philosopher and art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy, following the Sanskritist R E Hume, as the 'Water Cosmology'. "A belief in the origin of life in the waters was common to many ancient cultures, and must have arisen very naturally in the case of peoples like those of the Nile, the Euphrates, or the Indus Valley, among whom water, in the form of either seasonal rains or ever-flowing rivers was the most obvious prerequisite of vegetative increase," writes Coomaraswamy. "The Water Cosmology conceives of certain powers of abundance who direct, or at least symbolize or represent the operations of life as it wells upward from its source in the waters." [2]

While exploring the Sundarbans, in West Bengal, the artist realized that the mangrove is not a species but a system in which diverse plant species adapt and reconfigure themselves morphologically as well as physiologically to survive in unpromising, even hostile circumstances that include high salinity, waterlogged and oxygen-poor soil, heavy tidesand high winds. "Such adaptive mechanisms are seen in their reproductive strategies, probably the most unique in the plant world. Like most mammals and unlike most flowering plants, mangroves are viviparous, bringing forth live young rather than producing dormant seeds," observes the artist. "Once germinated, the seedling grows either within the fruit or out through the fruit to form a propagule or seedling. ... Once the propagule drops from the parent tree there is an obligatory dispersal period in the water. Once it is ready to root, its density changes. The propagule floats vertically rather than horizontally, and is more likely to lodge in the mud and take root." [3]


Both in the Sundarbans and more recently in Pichavaram, Sonia has explored the watery labyrinth of the mangrove forest by boat, canal by narrow canal. Mangroves remind her of the networks of veins and arteries in the human body, and the water of the amniotic environment; her images articulate these analogies with startling clarity. Chance took the artist to Pichavaram, the mangrove wetlands located between the Vellar and the Coleroon estuaries near the legendary Chidambaram temple, dedicated to the worship of Shiva, in Tamil Nadu's Cuddalore district. Associated with the temple, Pichavaram incarnates the Water Cosmology at its most potent: here, water is a shrine, and anyone who enters the mangrove forest enters a sacred precinct or sanctuary.

Set in Pichavaram, Sonia's video and animation works convey the pervasive sense of a sacred zone, where time is slowed down to the most essential movements of breath, heartbeat, blink and the splash of oar in water. At the same time, they record a threat to the zone, which issues from a seemingly innocuous source: the water hyacinth. This beautiful yet sinister weed spreads out in floating nets, threatening to choke the canals in the Pichavaram mangrove zone. In these works, we find transmuted a strong preoccupation within Sonia's recent work: her almost baroque, even phantasmagoric pictorial evocations of algae, protozoa and plankton evolve, cinematically, into a restrained, graceful iconography of water.

Inhabiting a completely different locale, Sonia's Uttarakhand prints evoke the forest, documenting fallen trees and the growth of lichen on bark and rock. As in the Pichavaram video works, though, the clearing at the heart of an arboreal density plays a pivotal role here. In his 1964 essay, 'The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking', the philosopher Martin Heidegger defines such a site as a Lichtung, noting that "the clearing, the open region, is not only free for brightness and darkness but also for resonance and echo, for sound and the diminishing of sound. The clearing is the open region for everything that becomes present and absent." [4] Heidegger continues, "The clearing grants first of all the possibility of the path to presence, and grants the possible presencing of that presence itself." [5]

Sonia's works based on her expeditions in Goa and Pondicherry focus on the tangle of undergrowth and on fallen boughs; the Goa works attend to roots and the interweaving of large root systems, contoured by rich contrasts almost into ossuaries, relics of what had once coursed with life. These latter images remind us of the philosopher Gaston Bachelard's dream meditation: "At the border of two worlds, the air and the earth, the image of the root is animated paradoxically in two directions, depending on whether we dream of a root bearing to heaven the juices of the earth, or of a root going to work among the dead ... The root is the mysterious tree, it is the subterranean, inverted tree."[6]

The 'Scapelands' project includes an excursus through a riparian landscape in Thailand, where the water alternately immerses and reveals a sequence of rock reefs. The image dwells on the interplay of surface and cavity, the pitting of erosion marking the passage of the geological calendar. As the eye widens to take in the panorama, it is the rapture of detail that seizes it. The images gathered together to form 'Scapelands' act both as entries in a journal, shaped within time, and as a cycle of archetypes standing outside the flux of time. 'Scapelands' challenges the pessimism with which the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss regards the possibility of quest in the modern world, on a planet unified but robbed of its mystery by technology. In his celebrated memoirs, Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss wrote: "Journeys, those magic caskets full of dreamlike promises, will never again yield up their treasures untarnished. A proliferating and overexcited civilization has broken the silence of the seas once and for all ... and dooms us to acquire only contaminated memories." [7] Sonia Mehra Chawla's prints and video works elude the tourist's simple categorizations; instead, they record a pilgrim's encounters with a universe that retains a measure of unfathomable otherness. Notes

1. Sonia Mehra Chawla, 'Photopolymer Gravure', project report for the Charles Wallace India Trust and British Council India, 2014-2015 (unpublished, 2015).

2. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, 'The Source of Life in the Waters', in Coomaraswamy, Yaksas: Essays in the Water Cosmology, ed. Paul Schroeder(New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts/ Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 98-99.

3. Private communication: Sonia Mehra Chawla, email to the author, 30 November 2014.

4.Martin Heidegger, 'The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking', trans. Joan Stambaugh, in Heidegger, Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (London & New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 319.

5.Heidegger, p. 321.

6. Gaston Bachelard, 'The totality of the root image', in Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie, trans. and ed. Colette Gaudin (Indianapolis & New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971), p. 84.

7. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, trans. John and Doreen Weightman (New York: The Modern Library, 1997), p. 29.

© sonia mehra chawla