Artist Komal Mistri's stark photos reveal harsh realities of maternity during Covid-19 crisis

Oppressed by dark emotions, suppressed pain and the numbness of loss, Komal Mset out to record life in the midst of death
Komal Mistri
Komal Mistri

Sterile and mechanised are the first words that come to mind when thinking of a hospital. Amidst the chaos of the raging Covid pandemic, early in the decade, hospitals had become grim theatres of death. Oppressed by dark emotions, suppressed pain and the numbness of loss, artist Komal Mistri set out to record life in the midst of death. The Vadodara-based artist spent three months in labour rooms of Gujarat hospitals as part of her photography project. The result is her ongoing show Come with Your Own Light being shown at Latitude 28 in Delhi. If you are looking for Gram-worthy images of cute newborns and glowing mothers, you will be disappointed. The photographs are raw and dark. There is blood and graphic agony in her images, made more poignant since they are black and white.

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“Being a mother, the topic came easily to me. When I had my son, I went into post-partum depression. It struck me that a large section of people, especially women, are unaware of this condition. This urged me to look for ways to delve deeper into the subject of maternity,” she says, adding that the female figure is central to her work as she strives to document their unknown or overlooked emotions. Working during the second wave proved to be not just physically difficult, but mentally draining. “Death was everywhere.

Expecting mothers during their labour had to keep masks on, which added to their trauma. Since crowding a hospital was not advised, some women were also alone during the moments she needed support the most,” recalls the 38-year-old, who became a support and confidante of sorts for many mothers-to-be in the labour room. One woman was so grateful for Mistri’s presence that she insisted that the artist name her newborn. Mistri christened the baby Kabir and the mother gave her `11 as a token of her appreciation. “Till date I keep the money with me wherever I go. It reminds me of the unlikely bonds forged in difficult situations,” says the MS University, Vadodara alumna.

Mistri documents not only the process of childbirth as a celebration, but also the unpredictability and trust associated with it. An outlier exhibit is a notebook which the artist had maintained as a diary during the difficult days. It has stories of both resilience and vulnerability. There are also objects that are common to a hospital—test tubes and surgical tools. To keep up with the stark images on display, Mistri did not want a white-cube gallery. So she scraped the paint off the walls and used charcoal to lend an aura of metamorphosis—akin to what the women experience in the labour room. The images play up the lack of proper medical attention, the limits of the physical strength of the women, and the socio-economic backwardness of rural Gujarat.

What was her biggest takeaway from the project? “I realised how mechanical the process of birthing is. What is supposed to be a happy moment is drowned in the pain the woman experiences and the static responses of the caretaking team. I found no one in the labour room empathetic to the new mother. To the medical staff, she was just another case, and so was dealt with unemotionally. Even for the accompanying relatives, the focus was on the newborn and the duties the woman will have to perform once discharged.

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No one thought about her lived experiences, and what she was going through internally,” says Mistri, who would often be turned away by the women wary of her interventionist photography. If she approached 10 women to be part of the project, only two would agree to have their childbirth recorded. Mistri would then follow up with proper documentation like signing the papers so that the women would not feel they were taken advantage of. “In the moment of their greatest vulnerability, I wanted to give them some semblance of comfort and autonomy,” she says. She did.

Story by Medha Dutta Yadav

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