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An enchanting interplay of sensuous exuberance, desire and decay
Artist Sonia Mehra Chawla deals with a mélange of ideas that make us ponder over fragility, emergence, decadence, dissolution and transience. The forms contain the vitality and essence of the living as well as the vulnerability of inevitable decay. Her work presents an ongoing clash between an individual and his or her oft-changing urban locations, having been subjected to a constant urban flux.

For instance, one of her series of works showcased by Latitude28 exemplified the theatrical enactment of such experiences within a ubiquitous urban location and clinical deconstruction so as to unearth symmetry even in apparent chaos. Twin conceptual devices of destruction and evolution echoed her visual concerns. Even while providing an apocalyptic view of rampant urbanization, she tried to strike a positive balance by investing energies to articulate the concept of genesis, existence, survival and growth.

Another thought-provoking showcase of artworks by her exhibited at Beck & Eggeling was a highly personal meditation on the passage of nature’s cycle and the temporal flow of the cycle of birth and regeneration. The images, at once generative and sensuous, macabre and degenerate, opulent and awe-inspiring, carried within them the vitality of the living, and the vulnerability of decay. Incidentally, her suite of works was acquired in 2010 for the Essl Museum’s permanent collection by Prof. Karlheinz Essl. ‘Metamorphosing Female’ was her first solo show in Germany. A solo by her at the New Delhi-based Palette Art Gallery earlier this year was a sequel to it.

The talented and versatile artist employs a wide array of mediums to focus on the purging of biodiversity, biomorphic patterning, often relating the urban with the organic in complex layering. She has developed a style uniquely her own combining print making techniques, photographic references and painting using acrylic paints, oils and inks. Born in 1977 in Kolkata, Sonia Mehra Chawla completed her BFA and MFA in Painting (with a gold medal) from College of Art, New Delhi in 2001 and 2004 respectively. She has worked extensively in etching and lithography - first under eminent Indian printmaker Anupam Sud and then at Atelier 2221, Print and Edition studio.

Among her noteworthy exhibitions are ‘Urban Biomorphic’, Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, Delhi; ‘The Second Sex: India’, Woman artist exhibition, 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong kong; ‘The Way We Are’, Viart Gallery, Delhi; SH Contemporary 08’, Shanghai; ‘Emerging Directions’ by Apparao Galleries, Gorbio, France; ‘Beyond Boundaries’, The Gallery In Cork Street, Mayfair, London; ‘Live Wire’, Visual Arts Centre, Hong Kong; ‘World One Minutes’, Today Art Museum, Beijing; ‘Art Dubai’ (all in 2008); ‘Identity and Masquerade’, The Photographers Gallery, London (2006-07);‘India-Asia: Changing Paradigms’, Cologne, Germany (2005); ‘Path/ Progression/ Digressions’, Air Gallery, London (2005);‘Moving Image’ courtesy Royal Netherlands Embassy (2004); and ‘Carry on Drawing’, Serpentine Gallery, London (2004).

Her works were part of the recent significant group show ‘India Awakens: Under The Banyan Tree' at Sammlung Essl-Museum der Gegenwart' (Essl Collection) in Vienna, Austria that featured several leading contemporary artists in order to reflect the variety of their forms and themes. One of the youngest recipients of the National Award in Painting from the Lalit Kala Akademi (LKA) in 2005, she won Ravi Jain Memorial Fellowship Award courtesy Dhoomimal Gallery, Delhi (2003); and was National Finalist, Nokia Asia-Pacific Arts Award in 2000. Some of her residency/studio based programs are 'Identity and Masquerade', studio-based practice at Tate Modern, London, 'Khirkee Ki Khoj', a studio based project at Khoj Artists Organization, and a year-long residency and at Atelier 2221.

Her most recent series brings out the crux of her art processes and philosophy. 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 protagonists are inward looking, their gaze focused on their own being not ‘their-being-as-that-which-is formed-only-in relation-to-the-others-gaze, notes Deeksha Nath in an essay. Peeping into her philosophy and processes, the art critic has mentioned: “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, which shares the title ‘Some Roots Grow Upwards’, 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.”

‘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,’ these lines from a poem by Jaishankar aptly summed up her ‘Metamorphosing Female’ series. Continually playing with the fleeting ideas of sensuous exuberance coupled with an underlying sense of desire and decay, she explored the cyclical layers of life, forms within forms, and strange worlds within worlds.

To sum it up, the female form has an uncompromising centrality in the work. The woman remains at the centre of growth and decay, love and life cycles. The body registers all emotions directly, and carries the marks. Through her subtle portrayal, Sonia Mehra Chawla brings out how the fragile female body is ephemeral and vulnerable – akin to a site of memory, history, and transformation, even as it continues with its mundane chores, yet registering all shades of emotions, and carrying the marks.