Alchemic Transmutations

Introduction by: Devin Hentz

Neha’s text traces how the factors in her life lead to making art. Reflecting on the role that stories, or the lack thereof, have had in shaping her personal life, Neha considers the role of stories in society. Transforming the personal into material abstractions that can be perceived and experienced with immediacy, one work titled ‘The Last Rites’ is at once vulnerable, revealing the artist’s innermost thoughts. But this keeps the audience at a distance in its opaque form, which stops the personal text from being read.

Neha also uses materials and art making as a way to create communal stories. She shares work and stories in which groups of strangers come together to experiment with the materials at their disposal, creating stories along the way.

Neha’s practice poses the question: what to do with all of the things you’re accumulating? The text, much like works presented, share a common source of feelings, memories, and everyday physical objects that need to be discarded or have been repurposed from having been thrown away.

Neha wants her work and words to be held gently and hopes that her methodology of using words and objects to make sense and stories of difficult moments will reach young adults feeling lost and coping with difficult circumstances. The text presents a chance for the reader to reflect on the stories that have shaped their own lives—the fragments of incomplete narratives or the stories that are too painful to remember. It also asks us to consider how we can take hold of those immaterial parts of our stories as well as the objects we collect in everyday living and reshape them to create something new.

I don’t remember any of the countless stories my grandparents repeatedly told me as I would drift into sleep as a child. Those stories have drifted away from our universe, which has transformed both in form and language. We are far away from our native tongues and dialects. Time is no longer something to dwell in at leisure at the disposal of parents who raise kids as they work long hours in nuclear units of a couple, or sometimes even as single parents.

The loss of stories is intimately tied up with the loss of a generation, the transforming methods of relaying information, the shift in the way communities and families exist and what is upheld as important to our lives as we grow. As creatures of nature driven to adapt, our memory functions in ways that seem most beneficial and if lyrical stories do not fit the bill of the dominant utilitarian structures of survival, those stories will be pushed back into some dark corner of the brain, if not entirely dissolved.

While the presence of forms of concrete documentation has freed us from the burden of memorising dates and events for a history exam and meanings of words we might never really use, what it has also done is to make what we intend to remember more fixed and less porous as it gets set in linear narratives in more permanent and adhesive substances that do not merge easily in the elements. The storytelling of the kind I credit my grandparents with was dependent almost entirely on memory and relaying of information through sound and activation of imagination. Once we have devices to take notes for us and an overwhelming number of images to see and process, we forgo not only the need but also the capacity to remember and imagine in those ways.

To the best of our knowledge, we understand our world through stories, narratives, conjunctions, associations and patterns. But what happens when I simply cannot tell the stories I was told or, perhaps, not even wish to recall them, because often the insidiousness of them creeps into my being and I do not wish to relive those paths anymore. With years of delving deeper into the workings of social and cultural forms, I see how these stories made up our lives, determining how we related to each other and the envisioned models of society.

None of those social structures feel enticing to me. Those stories have contributed to the making of the world I have found myself in, and I see this world as broken, isolating, undesirable, unequal, rife with crisis and power play. Would it have been any different if the stories we heard as children were different? Or are the stories that I see as contributing to these broken ways of the world also the sources of my ability to hope? To see a world beyond this brokenness, where things are changing repeatedly and yet staying the same, like the stories themselves—same yet different with each retelling…


I am beginning to think that the stories I grew up with served as containers to hold all the flux, the dynamics and uncertainties of life without losing ground and anchoring. Even today, the need for narrative and stories resurfaces very strongly each time there is sensemaking to be done, especially in the face of crisis and turmoil. Stories serve as wombs as one walks upon the larger body of earth, holding all the parts together as they transform in an ongoing osmosis with the world and forces our bodies and memories interact with.

The loss of what we can call familiar and traditional storytelling forms brings us to confront this crisis—that of the absence of a container that can hold us safely through change with the fabric that held us together and connected us to the larger world being torn, lost or even snatched away violently in some cases; implications are dire as we are growing to live with a continuous feeling of threat and insecurity, struggles over boundaries and definitions of self and other mired with obsessive holding onto status quo and a deep aversion to the spirit of enquiry and exploration.

We are looking for forms of narratives to anchor ourselves to, feverishly and hungrily, which is reflected in our rampant consumption of goods, as wells of media and entertainment which are forever attempting to fill gaps that they themselves are plagued with, given the unilateral and homogenised nature they assume. The stories we hear now are not passed on through generations living through contexts which had woven within their very fabric elements of agency and scope for mutation. We are struggling presently with templates that feed us centralised and static narratives with no agency of telling the tale and no space for imagination that can make it ours.

With older forms and ways of anchoring dissolving and the newer forms barely managing to address the lacunas that are left, both in the material relations world as well as in our psyches, we have before us the question as well as the task of recognising and being open to being reorganised into a newer kind of fabric that holds us. It will require new kinds of weaves and motions, different kinds of patterns, thinking and creativity that can accommodate that which is new to our world andthe flexibility and elasticity to hold that which is yet to be. What will inevitably also happen in the process is an encounter with the old habits and residues of what we once had—to make it anew such 

Something is wrong with the document here. Please ignore the empty space that it is strengthened further or to find ways of letting go that which is no longer. All of this awaits in the field in which we step into play.


In my very meandering path of life thus far, I painfully struggled to find my form. One single form, one single discipline, one single media did not make the world and my own self accessible to me in any intelligible manner. I grew up as an only daughter of a single mother in India at a time when mothers were not considered legal guardians. We did not have a house of our own, but I am told the life of financial struggle that I lived was not what my mother and her parents had lived.

So there were remnants and stories of a lavish life juxtaposed with the lived experience of constantly witnessing my family struggling to make ends meet. It was coupled with the wound of my father abandoning me and posing threats to my well-being, which in turn made my childhood limited and protected to a degree of feeling caged and claustrophobic. I wanted to explore and see the world more than I cared for my safety by the time I hit my late teens, for safety was not assured to me anyway.

I wondered if there were others who like me—feeling dissociated, disconnected, unreal, lost? I switched disciplines, cities, media and ways of relating to be able to find more of my kind, more who I could sit with and sometimes just breathe peacefully, those who I could perhaps piece together this fabric of life in ways that can bring hope and a sense of safety. Like shards of glass, those of us who are wounded often rub against each other when we meet our kind. The possibility of communing is often obstructed by our own and collective rough sharp edges. What space or form of relating could that be which would smoothen these edges? What container, fabric, string can hold them all in dignity and beauty, transforming the very meaning of brokenness and beauty?


My journey into expression had started with words and colours. But over about two decades of practicing those forms, I began working with materials. There were about four simultaneously occurring forces that led me to playing with materials. One was the presence of a lot of existing things that I had inherited from my last three generations of maternal ancestors, which was mostly stacked up in trunks as the number of rooms in our successive houses shrunk and the need to declutter increased. Further, I began getting extremely anxious about throwing things out because I was disturbed by the waste of the city ending up in the river bed, not to mention that ancestral things are difficult to discard and throw away for all the memories and associations they are wrapped in. I was also looking for ways of minimising expenses in art materials, since I have always been low on money and also because I saw a lot of other friends struggling with the same. Last was my trauma related to the loss of my grandparents, which was so deeply steeped in my body that no amount of writing or painting helped me shake it off myself.

The first time I worked with materials was when I had a severe panic attack and simply picked up a plank of wood and started hammering rusted nails into it. Then I found some old thin fabrics lying around and began to work my way with the materials at hand. I began making knots taught to me by my grandfather and grandmother respectively. Only then I was reminded of the craftwork my grandmother had left behind. A lot of her work was made with discarded glass bottles, tin boxes, wires, random buttons. There was a story I had not heard but was related to me through thesematerials and this story I had remembered and was retelling in my own work, in my own way. It was not only the waste that had transmuted into something creative but also the stories of my grandmother had alchemised as they came into being. The meanings, the relationships and the memories shifted while retaining the container and the materials, though all realigned, rearranged and reimagined.

For me, material has now become that portal into stories, through processes that can transmute memory and bridge the gaps without reductions and learnt narratives. I feel the language of materials is physical, mental and emotional all at once. When we work with materials, it unfolds as something alive, a story dancing like a shape shifting amoeba in the wilderness of body, mind, space and time. The story happens as something that cannot ever be repeated or told, however many times the process is repeated but only lived, because it is happening in a synergy of languages; it is story-ing.

Shared below are two instances of work, one individual and another of a public art installation through which I hope to gesture to the stories that transpired there.

1.The Last Rites

(2019, as part of residency #freedomismycolour at NIV Art Centre, Delhi)

‘The last rites’ came about at a time when I was feeling unproductive with a sense of futility colouring all my actions, no matter how much I worked. Printed drafts of novels and paintings from years had piled up and I began to feel oppressed by all the memories embedded in them, even though at the time of creating them I thought I was letting go of it and clearing up space in my head. So as an opportunity showed up for a residency, I applied with the idea of creating something using my printing writings and paintings as raw materials and finding a clear articulation of my relationship with art and my sense of self.

The concept finally assumed the form of an installation that included components created from these materials evoking different kinds of death rituals and a video that documented the process.

As all the artwork created through the residency was destroyed/transformed through these death rites, the process video is the only remaining element of the work.

The different works were titled:

The demons in my closet, made by cutting out diary entries into spiral forms. The elongated structures had a skeletal appearance to them, which replaced the initial weight of the writing with dangling paper trails, reminiscent of festival decorations.

All my pasts, a series of unsent letters to people dead and alive turned to curtain like sheets made by piercing holes with burnt incense sticks.

Bol ki lab azaad hain tere/ speak for thy lips are free. There were drafts of creative writings, paintings and old photographs that I crushed in little balls then mixing it in clay and finally making the form of a torso and face.

Entangled eternally, the last piece in the installation was sculptures made from my hair that I had shaved a couple of times that I dipped into plaster of paris.

Beautiful erasures: Process video.

2.Like an abandoned planet…

Like an abandoned planet came into being when a resident artist invited to the community space I had co-created in Agra proposed making a globe from waste around the river bed to be installed at the same site.

The process of cleaning proved to be much more disturbing a situation than was anticipated. We realised we could no longer use the waste we gathered from the river side for the making of the work, since the waste has been accumulating over decades and was unusable unless put through rigorous industrial mechanisms of treating which was not even in place.

Through a series of unforeseen circumstances, our artist left midway and much to our surprise we found ourselves surrounded by a team of youngsters from age two to 15. All from the slum. At a later point, some of their adults also joined in.

Magic transpired in the following 10 days, wherein instead of us dictating the terms of what or how would be made as public art. It was the materials and the kids who engaged with the work that took its shape organically, through methods that were devised in the moment, by kids jumping on plastic bottles to flatten them and running around the iron rings that were meant to be the frame of the globe.

The artwork did not end up being a round globe as imagined by the artist. To me it looked like some alien structure, something resembling a huge bird or a ship. And then someone said it looks ‘like an abandoned planet.’

The unforeseen and unplanned takes shape when there is space for it, when lived experience is allowed to be seen for what is it—an organic and shifting process—a life story-ing.

‘Healing is dispersed, it is not only in the spot that hurts… like art, the combinings and experience is beginning to cook in the depths of each participant, and finds expression wherever the contexts resonate. Interesting that the curating of such combinations is resonant with “cure,” and curating is about selecting a collection of experiences to let meaning emerge.’ – Nora Bateson, Tearing and Mending: Transcontextual learning and ‘healing’