As a teenager, often after her visit to the Sundarbans, Sonia Mehra Chawla would return to Kolkata, the place she called home, and paint fond memories of witnessing the magic of the sprawling mangroves as they lay lit under the light of the moon. The memory has refused to fade and has remained etched in her mind. As she brings together her latest solo exhibition titled “Critical Membrane” to Delhi’s Exhibit 320 to shed light on the endangered mangrove system in the country, she wishes she had kept those yesteryear amateur drawings. “Little did I know as a child that mangroves would form an integral subject of my artistic practice,” she says. The exhibition includes Mehra-Chawla’s Residue series, which has a mixed-media installation comprising photographs that focus on the remnants of decaying mangroves in Ernakulam, Kerala, and the Muthupet wetlands of Tamil Nadu. It also comprises handmade drawings created on plexi glass, which have been placed alongside frames of barren landscapes, which were recently showcased at the Yinchuan Biennale in China this year.
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The Delhi-based artist, through her work that spans prints, photographs, videos and installations, unveils tales of the various mangrove ecosystems in India, with special focus on the Coromandel and Malabar coasts. Mehra-Chawla, 39, who’s been working on the subject for more than half a decade now, says, “It’s important to bring this topic up because the mangrove systems are vulnerable and fragile, and at the same time form an important membrane between land and sea. When that membrane ruptures, we are susceptible to impending danger. These mangroves buffer us from erosion and also help in slowing down the speed of hurricanes.”
Highly interested in the anatomy of the mangroves, the artist started research on their biology, species and biodiversity in 2014, a time when she went on to collaborate with Chennai-based MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) that plays a pivotal role in looking into degraded mangrove belts across the country. Her project also entailed research that had to be carried out in laboratories in Chennai, wherein she worked with MSSRF scientists and researchers to build her works around fluorescent microscopy and light microscopy. The Universe in Detail I, II, III is one such work as it offers microscopic views of mangrove roots, leaves and stems through prints. Another highlight is the prints of bacterial cultures that were specially cultivated by MSSRF scientists in labs using the soil of the Pichavaram mangrove forest. “The role of microbes in sustaining the ecosystem is highly underrated. A healthy bacterial growth or microbial activity reflects a healthy ecosystem,” says Mehra-Chawla.
The impetus for her latest solo, however, lay in the first edition of the show, titled “Scapelands” in 2015, which also concentrated on the mangrove ecosystem. Mehra-Chawla was alarmed to notice that students from colleges and schools did not even know what a mangrove was. “That was around the time the oil spill had occurred in the Sundarbans. The knowledge and awareness about this ecosystem is really not there. I then decided to look at the project at a micro and macro level,” says Mehra-Chawla, who set forth on her endeavour by travelling to field sites of largely degraded belts of mangroves with scientists and field experts from MSSRF.
Elucidating on the root causes for dying mangroves and shrinking wetlands, she says, “There are many reasons like global warming and climate change. There is also misuse of ecosystems since colonial rule in the 1800s, when these mangroves were felled for revenue generation.”
The exhibition is on at Exhibit 320, Lado Sarai, till January 5.